Kenya: Dissenting Voices At Nairobi Soil Health Forum Over Increased Fertilizer Use

Nairobi — As the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit convened in Nairobi to review the progress made in terms of increasing fertilizer use in line with the 2006 Abuja Declaration, experts, practitioners, activists, and even government officials pointed out that accelerated fertilizer use may not be the magic bullet for increased food production in Africa.

During the opening ceremony of the summit, Kenya's Prime Cabinet Secretary, Musalia Mudavadi, who was also the guest of honor, said that in Kenya, there are places where fertilizer has been used optimally, but maize yields have stagnated.

"Though fertilizers are estimated to contribute more than 30 percent of the crop yield, we have witnessed in our country that fertilizer alone cannot sustain increased agricultural productivity and production," he said.

Studies have also shown that the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers has had a significant impact on soil acidity in many African countries, which is a major constraint on crop production and the sustainable intensification of smallholder farming systems.

According to an ongoing research project known as Guiding Acid Soil Management Investments in Africa (GAIA), 15 percent of all agricultural soils in Africa are affected by acidity issues and this has led to land degradation, decreased availability of soil nutrients to plants, and decreased plant production and water use.

According to Dr George Oduor, a soil scientist and international research consultant, African farmers should now consider or scale up the use of the Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) approach with a focus on return on investment and consider the use of lime on acidic soils.

"There is a need for governments in Africa to develop locally responsive tools that can advise farmers on how to combine different organic and inorganic fertilizers, how and when to intercrop with legumes for nitrogen fixation, and what crops to prioritize in different agroecological zones," said Oduor in an interview with IPS.

However, some activists feel that there is a need for a complete shift from synthetic fertilizers to organic methods of farming such as agroecology, the regenerative agriculture (RA) approach, and permaculture, among other sustainable farming techniques.

"The heavy financial burden placed on African nations to support the purchase of expensive, imported fertilizers drains local economies and diverts funds from more sustainable local agricultural investments," said Bridget Mugambe, the Programme Coordinator at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA).

She called on governments and policymakers at the summit and across Africa to recognize the enormous potential of agroecology to sustainably increase food security and food sovereignty, so as to reduce poverty and hunger while conserving biodiversity and respecting indigenous knowledge.

So far, Kenya is one of the African countries that is in the process of developing policies for agroecology. The country also launched the National Agriculture Soil Management Policy (NASMP) alongside the Nairobi AFSH summit. The policy will help facilitate the restoration and maintenance of agricultural soils in order to increase productivity, improve food security, and contribute to poverty reduction while conserving soil and water resources for future generations.

Within the local governments, Murang'a County in Central Kenya was the first to develop the legal framework for agroecology, through which the government can easily allocate resources for organic fertilizer and pesticide production.

"The main reason why we had to pioneer in this is that our region is highly impacted by climate change, and therefore agroecology became a priority as a way of adapting to the phenomenon," said Daniel Gitahi, the Director for Agriculture Value Chains, Policy, and Strategy.

"The second reason is that, as a county government, we observed that our yields were going down despite optimal use of fertilizers, and after research, we discovered that our soils had become more acidic due to overuse of nitrogen based fertilizers," he said.

Other solutions showcased at the summit include the use of 'bokashi' fermented organic fertilizer, which has transitioned from small-scale production to a commercial scale in a few African countries.

"I have been able to transform my tea plantation using bokashi; as well, I no longer use fertilizers on my maize farm in West Pokot County, and yet my yields have almost doubled," said Esther Bett, the Executive Director at the Resources Oriented Development Initiative (RODI Kenya).

RODI Kenya is already packaging and selling bokashi fertilizers through agrovet shops across the country, and has the capacity to produce up to 10 tonnes per month.

Allan Ligare from Mzuri Organics in Kakamega County, working in collaboration with the International Centre for Insect Ecology (ICIPE), brought along organic fertilizer made using black soldier flies while in the process of making animal feeds. "This fertilizer contains all the important nutrients; it adds organic matter to the soil; and it helps in the retention of soil moisture," he said.

A 2022 study published in the Nature scientific journal found that insect frass fertilizers made from all the insect species had adequate concentrations and contents of macronutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K)], secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium, and sulphur), and micronutrients (manganese, copper, iron, zinc, boron, and sodium).

The main objective of the 2024 AFSH Summit is to highlight the central role of soil health transformation in stimulating sustainable, pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture and food systems and to adopt the 10-year Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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