A switch to smart farming is needed for Africa’s soils

Opinion: Depleted soils and food

 
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Two-thirds of Africans are currently dependent on farming for their livelihoods, with 80% of them smallholders. African soil is known to contain fewer essential nutrients than soil in other continents and therefore has historically been considered as lower quality. The average output of cereal crops in Africa, for example, is 12,650 kg/ha, whereas the average in the United States is 73,404 kg/ha. This poor soil quality leads to decreased crop yields and underutilisation of farmland on the continent; 55% of the total land area in Africa is unsuitable for cultivation. Africa thus needs to return to fundamentals and development initiatives to address poor soil quality.

Fast and accurate soil information

With most African countries only producing agriculture at the subsistence level, efforts regarding the collection and management of soil information are minimal. However, collection of real-time data on soil nutrients, pH, temperature, water content, and organic matter is key in assisting farmers to make informed decisions. This will ensure proper soil conservation while sustainably improving productivity.

Technology will leapfrog the speed of soil data collection and analysis to inform the industry. One such technology is the UjuziKit developed by UjuziKilimo Solutions. The soil-based sensor collects data on soil pH, moisture levels, electrical conductivity, and nitrate, phosphate and potassium content. The Ujuzi software then analyses the data and, through an algorithm, matches it with the optimum conditions for different crops to boost crop production. The system sends recommendations on suitable seeds, soil treatment methods, water level requirements and fertilisation to farmers’ phones via short messages. The farmers then use this information to make fast and accurate decisions on the best crops to plant, the required fertiliser rates and general crop husbandry practices to attain maximum productivity.

Innovating for irrigation

Irrigation in Africa has the potential to boost agricultural productivities by at least 50%, but food production on the continent is almost entirely rainfed. The area equipped for irrigation, currently slightly more than 13 million ha, makes up just 6% of the total cultivated area. Water scarcity for agriculture is a major problem, resulting in a large percentage of soils becoming unproductive. Efficient use of the available water for irrigation is therefore very important. Technological innovations, such as soil moisture sensors, measure the volumetric water content in the soil and ensure precise irrigation, sustainably improving farm productivity to meet food demands.

Sustainable soil fertility monitoring and precise irrigation are also expected to reduce the quantity of fertilisers and water used for irrigation by more than 30%, whilst increasing production by 40% within the first year. Within 3 years, it is expected that production would increase by up to 200%.

Thus, as Africa races to feed the fast-growing population, the key to achieving food security lies in the ability of farmers to switch to smart farming solutions, which can sustainably boost farm yields without putting an irreparable strain on the continent’s soil.