It’s all about context
A new event looks at the role of root and soil health in supporting food security and tackling climate change. The recent One Earth Soil and Root Health Forum brought together farmers, researchers, NGOs, and representatives of the public and private sectors. Discussions revolved around sustainable development in line with the SDGs. The geographical focus was on Africa, which has most of the earth’s uncultivated arable land. Together with ASARECA and The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), we organized a breakout session.
Our session focused on opportunities for the public and private sectors to support African smallholders in improving their soils’ health and fertility. Three experts gave their opinions. Step Aston of One Acre Fund focused on fertilizer recommendations and future integrated solutions. Sebastian Brahene from FAO provided an insight into the mindsets of small-scale farmers. Grace Chirchir represented Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. She gave examples of policy and legislation which enable ‘integrative preservation’ of soil health. All speakers voiced a clear message: smallholders need support to manage their soils, but this has to match their possibilities and needs.
Step Aston emphasizes the importance of concrete, actionable recommendations adjusted to every field’s special features. These help farmers more than just general soil or climate data. As he points out, many guidelines are developed at the national level. This can, for example, result in misjudging local target yields, leading to excessive fertilization. Recommendations should also take into account the local availability – or lack – of specific soil amendments.
According to Aston, farmers need more support in integrating the various, sometimes competing, recommendations they receive from different organizations. Advice should go beyond field fertility considerations alone. Careful cost/benefit evaluations can be very important, for instance when choosing whether to use plant residues as mulch or animal feed. Step Aston also commented on the increasing popularity of providing data-based recommendations via smartphones. He recognizes the advantages but doubts that it will rapidly become a widespread solution. Technical obstacles include low smartphone adoption by smallholders and insufficient network coverage.
Collaboration and legislation
Sebastian Brahene encouraged listeners to put a lot of effort into understanding smallholders’ mindsets and decision-making processes. These farmers are already key contributors to global food production but need to benefit from easier and broader collaboration. Brahene believes, for example, that it is crucial to introduce more ‘feedback loops’ between smallholders and researchers. Farmers also need to be able to share experiences better with their peers, for example on soil management. In each case, the local context remains very important.
Grace Chirchir described Kenya’s encouragement of private/public sector synergies to improve soil health. The government promotes partnerships through policies and stakeholder platforms dedicated specifically to this topic. According to Chirchir, policies, strategies, and legislation must address the basics, starting with behavior change by small-scale farmers. As an example, she discussed Kenya’s recent National Agricultural Soil Management Policy. This addresses activities such as sustainable soil and environmental management, including coordinated institutional and legal support, as well as technology development. Chirchir stresses the importance of strengthening the links between research and extension and of making solutions more readily available to smallholders. De-centralizing soil laboratories and lower testing prices would both help. Fertilizer accessibility, affordability, and management also need to improve.
Participants agreed that there is considerable scope for improving smallholders’ soils and for creating more farmer-specific solutions. To support large-scale and sustained adoption of the necessary innovations, a stronger focus is required on context-specific approaches. These must incorporate smallholders’ needs and capabilities and avoid trying to push innovations at them.
The aim of this session was to stimulate discussion on how to deliver soil-improving technologies to smallholders. “What we have learned from the panelists is that there is a need to shift from isolated interventions to more systemic approaches”, says our R&D Lead Dominik Klauser. “For instance, these can include combining soil diagnostics with appropriate advice, inputs, and agronomy. A second, important take-away message is that suggestions and actions must be adapted to the farming system in question. That requires a good understanding of smallholders’ interests and their capacity to put recommendations into practice.”
The Foundation is determined to bring these learnings into action. “We will be vocal to our teams and partners about these important learnings”, Klauser declares.