Solving Africa’s Soil Depletion and Starvation Through Sustainable Farming

Solving Africa’s Soil Depletion and Starvation Through Sustainable Farming

Soil depletion in Africa remains a significant problem. It affects yields, and threatens domestic food security and revenues derived from export crops. According to a 2016 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 40% of African soils were suffering from some form of degradation, including nutrient loss and erosion.

In an article published this month, the FAO reported that the world has been put on a heightened famine alert. In this article is a new report, Early Warning Analysis of Acute Food Insecurity Hotspots, which includes a stark warning that four countries contain areas that could soon slip into famine if conditions continue to worsen. These areas are: Burkina Faso in West Africa’s Sahel region, northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. The report notes that acute food insecurity levels are reaching new highs globally, and that another 16 countries are at high risk of rising levels of acute hunger.

Despite food shortages in some areas, Africa’s population continues to expand; it is forecast to rise by almost 1 billion to reach 2.2 billion people by 2050. Yet food production is already failing to keep pace with rapid population growth. Although Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and agriculture accounts for 60% of the labour force, the continent imports an average of $72 billion in food per year.

Amid these growing concerns, addressing soil deficiencies and improving the productivity of African lands is critical. A healthy soil is the foundation of a productive farming system, food and nutrition security, the improvement of livelihoods, and the alleviation of poverty on the continent and in our world.

In many African countries, soils have become unhealthy due to years of crop nutrient-mining and limited organic or inorganic resupply. In their current state, these soils are not able to provide adequate nutrition; when a soil is degraded, yield drops dramatically. 

In the past, soil fertility improvement efforts have generally focused on the use of inorganic fertiliser as the primary mechanism for temporarily improving soil fertility as well as crop yields. However, under conditions in which soils are largely degraded (with limited organic matter), using inorganic fertilisers alone has shown limited success in improving soil fertility. 

That’s why the continent needs to move towards a sustainable soil management regime that involves measures to protect soil from erosion and other threats, and preserves the soil’s ability to retain water. Some ways of doing this include:

  • maintaining vegetation cover
  • minimising tillage
  • avoiding monocultures through crop rotation and inclusion of livestock.

These longer-term solutions help build organic matter and organic nutrient pools in the soil; an essential component to achieving sustainable soil fertility. 

Focusing on and prioritising sustainable soil fertility efforts should include not just soil productivity, but an inclusive and holistic view of food and nutrition security, poverty reduction and overall wellbeing of communities. Investments in soil fertility improvements should support resilient and sustainable livelihoods, providing both nutrition and economic returns.

Solutions from the soil

Get in touch with the Zylem team to find out more about our sustainable soil health solutions that grow yields and livelihoods. Contact us on 033 347 2893 or send your enquiry to

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