As Kenya prepares to host the highly anticipated 2023 Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit, the spotlight is on reducing dependency on food and fertilizer imports. Experts and local entrepreneurs, as outlined in the recently released 2023 Africa Agriculture Status Report, are advocating for a shift towards increased reliance on local and regional trade conducted in local currencies.

The report underscores the importance of investing in local production of crop nutrients and seeds and harnessing local capital for food system investments. However, while the benefits of such a transition are evident, it's essential to proceed cautiously to avoid the pitfalls experienced by Sri Lanka when it transitioned entirely to organic farming.

The Sri Lanka Experience: Lessons in Transition

In 2021, Sri Lanka made headlines when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a ban on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, making organic farming mandatory. The policy aimed to save approximately $400 million the country was spending annually on synthetic fertilizers and other farm inputs. However, this bold move backfired when crop yields dropped by almost 52 percent, necessitating a policy reevaluation.

John Macharia, AGRA's Country Manager for Kenya, emphasizes the need for a well-planned transition. He suggests that comprehensive soil testing campaigns are the first step in understanding soil nutrient deficiencies and acidity levels. These insights are pivotal for devising short, medium, and long-term strategies to rejuvenate the soil. Importantly, this should be an ongoing process.

Esther Bett, Executive Director at Resources Oriented Development Initiative, highlights the challenges of transitioning from synthetic to organic fertilizers, particularly in severely nutrient-depleted soils. Contrary to popular belief, it's neither swift nor cost-effective. Organic fertilizers, unlike their synthetic counterparts, provide macro and micronutrients to the soil over time, allowing it to self-generate essential nutrients for crops over multiple seasons.

Small Steps, Big Gains: The Path to Sustainability

For smallholder farmers, Bett recommends starting with a manageable portion of their land based on their capacity. Even as small as a quarter of an acre can make a significant difference. Once the land rejuvenates, they can expand their organic farming efforts to another section. Farmers grappling with severely depleted soils should commence with modest quantities of organic fertilizers and gradually reduce the volumes over successive seasons. As the soil rejuvenates, it regains its fertility, eliminating the need for further fertilizer inputs.

Entrepreneurs across the country have been exploring innovative techniques to produce nutrient-rich organic fertilizers. The wealth of knowledge stemming from these endeavors can be harnessed to facilitate large-scale production. Initiatives like the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Rice Initiative for Climate Smart Agriculture (R4iCSA) led by Kilimo Trust have been instrumental in training local entrepreneurs in producing Biochar fertilizer. By recycling rice husks, typically regarded as waste, these entrepreneurs have created a nutrient-rich Biochar-based fertilizer.

Local Solutions for Soil Fertility and Acidity

Addressing soil fertility is only one part of the equation. Soil acidity is another challenge plaguing Africa's food system. A recent publication assessing soil liming in Kenya revealed that approximately 13 percent of the country's soils, equivalent to 7.5 million hectares or roughly 63 percent of arable land, are acidic.

Efforts such as the conversion of rice husks into soil nutrient-rich Biochar-based fertilizer have demonstrated the potential of indigenous knowledge combined with modern technology. Entrepreneurs, particularly in regions like Kirinyaga County, have been actively producing Biochar using portable kilns. This Biochar is then treated with specific soil microbes to enhance its nutrient content. Samuel Rigu, the founder of Safi Organics, is a testament to the success of this approach, producing up to six tons of Biochar daily.

The Way Forward: Sustainability and Prosperity

In the pursuit of revitalizing depleted soils, Africa is embracing organic farming and sustainable soil management as a long-term vision. The key lies in a gradual shift, leveraging local solutions and indigenous knowledge. Sustainable agriculture offers a viable path towards self-sufficiency in food production, reduced dependency on imports, and increased economic stability. It's a journey that requires dedication, patience, and a steadfast commitment to nurturing the earth for a bountiful harvest.

The 2023 Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit offers an invaluable platform to explore these strategies and chart a course towards a more sustainable and prosperous agricultural landscape.