Like many other places in the world, soil fertility in Africa has become a major problem. Agricultural experts such as Dennis Garrity, chief executive of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), headquartered in Nairobi see the situation as dire. Sub-Sahran Africa is one of the regions on the planet that is going to undergo an explosion in population growth so African farmers have two major problems to contend with:
- Combat existing poverty and hunger
- Producing more food for future population
The Threat of Uncontrolled Population Growth
The UN 2011 report: World Population to 2300 Table 3 & 4 show:
- Africa’s population increasing from 795.7 million people in 2000 to 1.803.3 million people by 2050, an average annual rate of change of 1.64 %
- In comparison, the next fastest growing region, Asia goes from 3 679.7 million in 2000 to 5 222.1 million in 2050 and an average annual rate of change of 0.70%
Africa will likely be the last continent to advance through the demographic transition of moving from high to low rates of birth and death. African countries may follow other developing countries such as Algeria, Iran and Vietnam by proceeding relatively quickly, or alternatively, it may follow less successful developing countries such as Egypt and Kenya and proceed slowly or even stall.
In order to avoid this undesirable outcome, the international community can play an important role in facilitating the demographic transition to low death and birth rates. By almost any measure, the costs of international assistance to Africa aimed at achieving these objectives are small while the resulting benefits are enormous for families and nations.
Feeding the Population
African countries face a complex problem of trying to develop enough agricultural capacity while hitting a moving population target. As African governments and the international community try to lower the birth rate, food security must closely track the changing birth rates. There is currently debate raging as to which methods are best. On the one end is the centralized monocrop /chemical fertilizer approach champion by large Agro multi-nationals for obvious reasons while at the other end is the organic/permaculture approach. There is a variety of mixed modes between these two extremes and the solution may very well be a mixture of chemical fertilizer, no-till-mulch systems, organic fertilizers, biochar, permaculture and agroforestry using nitrogen fixing trees.
The rusty red soil commonly found in many parts of Africa reflects deficiency in organic matter and key nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus due to years of intensive, unsustainable farming practice in which no thought was given to replenishing soil nutrients. Farmers across sub-Saharan Africa have lost an average of:
- 22 kilograms of nitrogen,
- 2.5 kilograms of phosphorus
- 15 kilograms of potassium
perannually over the past 30 years. This is equivalent to an annual cost of US$4 billions’ worth of chemical fertilizer. The lack of these essential soil components explain the poor average yields of grain crops to stagnate. Compare Africa’s grain output vs the rest of the world:
- Africa: 1 tonne /
- South Asia: 2.5 tonne//
- East Asia: 4.5 tonne /
These figures track the use of chemical fertilizers.
- Africa: 9 kg / (approximately last 40 years)
- Asia: 96 kg /
Chemical Fertilizers vs Organic
- Pros: Quick results, high yields upfront
- Cons: Expensive, Difficult for farmers to access, creates dependency
Organic / Permaculture
- Pros: long term high yields, natural and local – no dependency on outside sources
- Cons: Takes a long time to see appreciable yields
One suggested compromise pathway is to confront the large food security issues is to apply chemical fertilizers in the beginning but with a long term plan to transition to sustainable, organic techniques. The use of chemical fertilizers will meet the large current food demands and seasonal decrease in use of chemical fertilizers accompanied by increasing use of organic techniques wean dependency on them.
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