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Soil Health Is Fundamental for Zambia’s Farmers
By Lystra Antoine, Global Director of Sustainable Agricultural Development, DuPont Pioneer and Member of the GHI Board of Directors
Zambia has the potential to be a breadbasket for southern Africa. The country is home to some of the most productive large-scale farms in Africa and an emerging class of medium-scale farmers who are contributing to the agricultural value chain. But the vast majority of Zambia’s farmers (~1.06 million) lack access to productivity-enhancing and labor-saving agricultural technologies, which makes it difficult to increase their yields.
For maize, which accounts for 90 percent of Zambia’s cereal production, the average yield is about 2.4 metric tons per hectare, slightly more than Africa’s average of 2 tons per hectare, but well less than the U.S. average of 10 tons per hectare. If food and nutrition security is to be realized in Zambia, local farming operations and agricultural systems must be strengthened and market incentives must be provided to encourage a fundamental shift from subsistence farming.
Improving yields for Zambia’s subsistence and small-scale farmers begins in the soil. In order for farmers to maximize their yields today and sustain productivity for tomorrow, they need access to the knowledge and technologies that will optimize the health of their soils. Unfortunately, most small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to identify the amount and type of nutrients their soils need. This can result in low crop yields, ineffective farmer decisions, and persistent food insecurity.
“What does a $100 billion asset manager say farmers should invest in? Soil!” – Howard G. Buffett, farmer and Chairman and CEO of Howard G. Buffett Foundation, speaking at the 2015 World Food Prize
DuPont Pioneer and the Agriculture and Food Security Center of the Earth Institute at Columbia University are partnering with Zambian farmers and organizations on a soil-testing program called SoilDoc. It enables agricultural extension agents to provide a near real-time diagnosis based on the analysis of soil samples taken from the farmers’ fields. SoilDoc, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland and Columbia University, is a portable, battery powered on-farm soil testing kit that provides tailored fertility recommendations appropriate for the soil that can, if well-utilized, increase farmers’ crop yields. This program brings state-of-the-art technology to smallholder farmers that helps them apply the right nutrients in the right amount at the right time, thus increasing the efficiency of mineral fertilizers and organic matter applications. Given that most African farmers can only afford one-tenth the amount of fertilizer recommended for their crops, efficient use of nutrients is crucial to their success.
Sustainable food and nutrition security for Africa depends on the continent’s ability to maximize the enormous farming potential of each smallholder farmer, on whom African agriculture relies. Programs like SoilDoc show us that we can apply global science to create local solutions that help farmers overcome some of the challenges they face. The ability to assess nutrient deficiencies, with on-site soil testing, provides farmers a tremendous opportunity to use their limited resources in a more profitable way.