Stories tagged: soil health

Science-Based, Smarter Farming for Africa

As part of Farming First’s agroecology in action series, Ishmael Sunga, CEO of SACAU writes about the importance of using data to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture

African farmers, the majority of whom are smallholders, face myriad challenges.

These challenges are related to the entire cycle of farming, from pre-investment and production to post-production and marketing. They result in low volumes, low productivity, low quality products, and high post-harvest losses. Typically, farmers operate in a high-risk-low-return environment.

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Erosion is Eating Away at African Farms: We Must Measure Damage

With severe weather on the rise, farmers and downstream water users are being besieged by the impacts of erosion. But researchers are finding that the right interventions can cut soil runoff by up to 40% – a benefit that might find its way into struggling farmers’ incomes. Jane Gicheha, a Researcher with The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) explores this topics for Farming First.

With no shoes and little pause, Rachel Njeri bounds down her steep hillside farm, hopping from terrace to terrace until landing at the bottom. A grandmother in her 60s, she can reach the tiny stream 100 meters into the valley of her farm in about two minutes.

At the bottom, Rachel looks up to assess her yields, but also to examine the waves of crumbling land that once sustained crops. Rachel’s farm sits along a steep hillside and erosion is washing her soil downhill, causing small landslides, as well as soil and nutrient loss.

“Look at this maize crop, I will not harvest a thing this season,” laments Rachel. “The soils have been eroded and the remaining are just too acidic for food production. Planting maize and beans results in hunger in my house since most of it will not produce anything.”

Researchers tasked with helping Kenyan farmers stave off erosion cautiously follow her path, arriving minutes after. They examine the damage and results of interventions. “With this kind of loose soil, you need something drastic because whatever you plant is just going to wash away with the next rain.” says CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems scientist Ravic Nijbroek.

Extreme erosion is eating away at productive farmland and harming water supplies (Jane Gicheha, CIAT)

Erosion is dramatically reducing land productivity in many African countries, especially for smallholders who often work hillside plots. But the challenges are affecting millions downstream too. Erosion increases the rivers’ sediment load – the amount of soil transported downstream into rivers. And with heavy rains and climate unpredictability, the recent loads have been shockingly high.

More than five million Nairobi residents rely on the Tana River for their water use. One Senior Engineer of Kenya’s Ndakaini Dam says, reports that their operating costs are relatively low during the dry season… But during the rainy season, the sediment levels of the rivers rise, leading to siltation of dam, and increasing operating costs.

Researchers show us the evidence

To find the right solutions, it’s critical for researchers to understand how much sediment loads increase during extreme weather events, and during rainy season when farms receive twice the usual amount of rain. And solutions need to work across different farm conditions.

One project addressing these challenges is The Nairobi Water Fund, founded by The Nature Conservancy business, utilities, and governments together with researchers, NGOs and farmers.

The project’s Business Case showed that investing at least US$10 million in on-the-ground environmental management efforts for the Upper Tana River over a decade can reduce sediment concentration in rivers by more than half.

Success could also mean farmers receive payment for ‘ecosystems services’, like protecting water sources for downstream users, such as Coca-Cola and utility companies.

Transforming that vision into reality hinges on providing evidence that shows that the activities being funded upstream are translating to the expected benefits. This is where research is proving vital.

Scientists have been monitoring water at the farm level since May 2015. This means regularly collecting data on water levels, flow, sediment load in rivers, and water turbidity – the level of “dirtiness” in the water.

This data is used to find out whether sustainable land management (SLM) activities such as building terraces, planting trees and installing grass strips are reducing sediment load within the waterbodies.

This data provides a way to prove interventions are making a difference upstream. This is crucial for farmers and for downstream investors who have a stake in the quality of water upstream. In an on-going impact assessment study, which includes interventions on Rachel’s farm, CIAT/WLE researchers have found that the magnitude of runoff  and sediment for areas with no SLM were up to 40% higher than in the areas with interventions such as grass strips and terraces. This underpins the importance of trialling a range of interventions on individual farms such as Rachel’s.

With these techniques, the water companies will also find less sediment clogging their equipment, lessening a problem that hikes up treatment and maintenance costs. The benefits and reduced costs can be passed along to Nairobi residents using the water.

Finding the right solutions for sustainable land use

Of course, farmers’ livelihoods are also crucial, along with how benefits flow to women. WLE has provided farmers like Rachel improved fodder seeds for more diverse and productive crops. “I decided to plant Napier grass since it will provide fodder for my livestock and help my soil from being eroded,” says Rachel. “Keeping livestock is also a better investment because I sell milk, and once in a while I sell a cow. I get a lot of money to feed my family and even pay school fees for my grandchildren.”

While evidence shows interventions are helping, Rachel continues to struggle with some erosion. But researchers are working with her and others to better understand how SLM practices can best reduce soil erosion and runoff – on particular farms, and across the watershed. The evidence is paving the way for the best solutions to be scaled up and adapted across the basin – with benefits flowing back to farmers.

So while Rachel continues to bound down her steep hillside to take stock of her crops, the farm’s best soil will hopefully not make that same journey. With the right, well-tested solutions, researchers hope her soil will remain intact, nourishing crops, providing her a comfortable livelihood, and also contributing to the water security of millions of users downstream.

Rachel feeding her livestock (Jane Gicheha, CIAT)

Why Increasing Smallholder Resilience Starts with Soils

By Julian Galindo, Senior Project Manager; Jean-Pierre Rennaud, General Delegate & Cofounder and Nishal Ramdoo, Director of Communications at Livelihoods Fund. 

When we talk about natural disasters, we immediately think of cyclones, floods and droughts. Without a doubt, climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of these hazards. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Farmers are already suffering from the insidious effects of climate change on a daily basis: longer dry seasons, degraded soils, and a loss of biodiversity. In addition to these natural disasters, farmers also contend with disasters directly triggered by human activities like deforestation, loss of soil fertility and soil erosion. Soil degradation is a silent disaster jeopardizing our future, but the good news is that efficient solutions do exist. Continue reading

Steve Kibet: Mobilising Youth to Tackle Soil Degradation

In this guest post, young soil scientist Steve Kibet tells Farming First how he has managed to mobilise young people to take action against soil degradation in Kenya. This blog is part of our ongoing partnership with Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD).

My grandmother would sit us by the fireside after a long day of looking after her livestock. She would tell us how she used to plant crops; there was no use of organic fertilizer, just removing vegetation cover by slashing and planting the crops using hoes. There was little disturbance to the soil structure. The cover material would protect the soil from water erosion, which is the main type of erosion in the area.. This resulted in a maize plant producing 2-3 maize cops. Her granary was full all year round and the cost of production was very low. Continue reading

Sir Gordon Conway: Supporting the Soil that Supports African People

When building food security and economic growth in Africa, the ground beneath your feet plays a crucial role. Modern studies, using remote sensing, show that 65 per cent of arable land in Africa is degraded, meaning it has an impaired ability to nurture plant life, including crops. This results in low yields and higher crop failure, which in turn have a direct impact on the health and economic growth of the populations dependent on that land. Across the region an estimated 180 million people  are affected by the social and economic costs of degraded land.
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Video: Putting Soil Health Back on the Global Agenda

Farming First TV interviewed Charlotte Hebebrand, the Director General of the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA), on why it is so important to shine a spotlight on the importance of soil health.

Ms. Hebebrand observed that although soils are crucial for agriculture, they are often taken for granted and have historically suffered from overuse. To replace the nutrients used up by crop growth farmers need training in right type, timing, placement and rate of fertilizer application, known as the 4Rs of nutrient stewardshipContinue reading