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:

  1. Combat existing poverty and hunger
  2. 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%
When talking about population growth, China and India typically dominate the news since together, they account for about a third of the global population. But according to Joseph Chamie, the former director of the UN Population Division and a researcher at the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, Africa’s future growth will have repercussions not just for Africans, but for the entire planet.
Chamie is author of the report “Africa’s Demographic Multiplication’, commissioned by the Washington-based Globalist Research Center. The study projects that the total population of just 11 African countries:
  1. Nigeria
  2. DRC
  3. Egypt
  4. Ethiopia
  5. Kenya
  6. Malawi
  7. Niger
  8. Sudan
  9. Tanzania
  10. Uganda
  11. Zambia
will climb to a staggering 2.4 billion people, a quarter of the planet’s total population by 2100. These projections are based upon continuing high birth rates (close to five children per woman) and comparatively lower death rates (life expectancy at birth is 56 years) as HIV/AIDS medicine begin to extend the lifespan of patients. Chamie warns that such high population numbers will pose significant problems to sustainable development.  Development strains will be lessened by lowering the rates of population growth.
Even more startling, these above numbers are based on assumptions of applying current population reduction strategies such as educating girls more successfully. Chamie reveals that if Africa’s fertility rates remain unchanged over the coming decades, the population of the continent would explode, reaching three billion by 2050 and an incredible 15 billion by 2100! Chamie notes that even if fertility rates were to fall instantly to replacement levels, the population would continue to increase because half the population is less than 20 years old, growing to 1.5 billion in 2050 and 1.8 billion in 2100.
The conclusion of Chamie’s study is that the only practical solution is to vigorously implement population control strategies as rapidly as possible. The alternative is  mass starvation and social chaos on an epic scale.

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

per hectare annually 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 / hectare
  • South Asia: 2.5 tonne// hectare
  • East Asia: 4.5 tonne / hectare

These figures track the use of chemical fertilizers.

  • Africa: 9 kg /hectare (approximately last 40 years)
  • Asia: 96 kg /hectare

Chemical Fertilizers vs Organic

Chemical

  • 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.

Investing in Small Holdings Farmers

 

Figure 1: Investing in Small Holdings Farmers (Browse more data visualizations.)