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About the Author

Ochieng Ogodo
Journalist (Nairobi, Kenya)

Ochieng' Ogodo is the Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor for Science and Development Network ( He is a Kenyan science journalist writing for local and international media. He is the English-speaking Africa and the Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Ochieng' also chairs the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association (KENSJA) As a journalist, his works have been published in various parts of the world including the Africa, UK and the USA. He ventured into journalism in 1996 at The East African Standard, one of the two leading media houses in Kenya. At The Standard he worked at the News Desk which entailed rigorous reporting including news breaking based on assignments and personal initiatives. From September 1999 to October 2003 he was moved to the Investigative Desk as one of the few writers to the then widely read investigative pullout, The Big Issue. He comprehensively and extensively wrote on human interest issues, personality profiles, entertainment, transport and maritime, not to forget commentaries and analysis on major topical issues as well as undertaking Special Projects. From October 1, 2003 to November 1, 2006 he was a staff writer with the defunct Biosafety News- then a Nairobi based Science, Biotechnology, Health, Environment and Agriculture Magazine. He was a Senior Staff Writer at Doctor News East Africa [Kenya] from September 2007 to June 2008. Among others, he has made contributions to popular media outlets in the world like The Guardian [UK] and National Geographic (US). He has been to various international scientific forums. April 16-21, 2007, he attended the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne and presented on Climate Change Reporting: The Developing Word Perspective. He attended Land Ocean Interaction in the Coastal Zone (LOICZ) open science congress in Egmond aan Nzee, Netherlands June 25-July 1, 2005 and presented on Media and Environmental Protection. He covered the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil March 14-25, 2006 and United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change in Nairobi, November 06-17, 2006. From December 7-18, 2009 he covered COP 15 in Copenhagen. Ochieng' has consulted for, among others, Elsevier BV based in Netherlands, EDCTP and the World Agroforestry Center..


Depletion of African soils’ nutrients alarming, say expert

Published 06th June 2010 - 5 comments - 2905 views -

By Ochieng’ Ogodo

For a continent where millions of people depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood and economic gains, the prospect of depleted soil fertility is not something one wants to hear.

But African soils are fast becoming nutrient deficient with low yields spelling a bleak future for many. Keith Shepherd, soil scientist with the Nairobi-based World Agroforesty Centre or ICRAF, said many factors account for the worrying scenario. “The organic matter in the soil has been mined intensely but supply has been suppressed. There has been low level of nutrient input,” he said. Because of this there isn’t enough nutrient supply for crops.

The decline in organic matter has led to soils becoming physically degraded and has accelerated water run-off, which erodes the richer part of soils into water bodies. “This has led to progressive decline in water quality and increased siltation, especially in lakes and dams.”

Another important soil capital, phosphorous, is inherently low and this basic problem has not been addressed in Africa as opposed to other regions such as Australia, the US and Europe. Many soils in Africa are also sensitive, including old lake deposits, and if you do not apply good farming methods the soils will be swept away leaving large portions less productive.
“Agricultural development,” he said, “was critical for poverty alleviation in Africa but despite this, there has been a decline in investment in agriculture in the last 30 years.

Not all is lost

“Both policy makers and scientists are now waking up to this,” said Shepherd. The realization is that without reviving the agricultural sector, the majority of people in Africa will remain stuck in a whirlpool of poverty and with ever diminishing ability to adapt to modern technologies.

“A lot can be done by improving support for farmers, like making inputs widely available, creating credit and supplying higher value crops,” Shepherd pointed out.
One of the ways of addressing the problem, according to Shepherd, is through agroforestry where farmers grow trees on farms along with other crops, and can use or sell products from their trees such as timber or fruits.

There are also trees that fix nitrogen in the soil and act as natural fertilizers. Another example is leguminous fodder trees which are grown by farmers in many places, including around Mount Kenya, to feed to dairy cows and goats.
Trees, Shepherd explained, can also be important for stabilizing ecological systems, and farmers can benefit from woodlots and planting trees on boundaries.
The World Agroforestry Centre is now involved in many projects aimed at replenishing the diminishing African soil capital for better yields and improved livelihoods.
“One of our main projects is to contribute to the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS) to enable stakeholders to get better information on problems and opportunities relating to soils in Africa,” he said. Taking advantage of georeferencing, the scientists are now sampling and analysing soils from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

Through infra-red spectroscopy - whereby light is shone on the soil sample and the reflected light collected back as a spectral signature - together with new similar x-ray techniques, it is possible to get information on the amounts and types of minerals and chemical elements in the soil. From this, the type and quantities of nutrients in a particular area can be determined and the amount of water it can hold. Thus helping to advise on optimal soil management.
Through AfSIS, the Centre and its partners are currently involved in soil survey across sub-Saharan Africa using randomly located sampling sites. Regional field crews in Tanzania, Mali, and Malawi study landforms, vegetation, and measure trees for biomass and water infiltration rates.

“This program started a year ago and is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and is hosted by the Centre’s sister institute, the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT-TSBF)” he explained. The project is also conducting crop testing trials to see how soils respond to fertilizers. “When we work in a particular country we train national teams from national programmes to contribute to the African Soil Information Service to help improve national services”

Advice to different stakeholders

A key goal of the World Agroforestry Centre says Shepherd, is to give advice to different stakeholders ranging from farmers to policy makers and development banks on constraints faced and appropriate land management interventions, like the right agroforestry and soil management techniques for different types of soils and locations. A key need in getting information to farmers, he said, is the building of national and private extension services for advising farmers on appropriate crops and trees, for example for acidic soils. There is also increasing opportunity, he pointed out, to get information to farmers through local internet services and mobile phone services.

At a national level, the Centre provides advice to governments in planning agricultural development programmes for different areas, in developing policies for protection of the environment, and on the role of agroforestry in these developments.

The Centre’s information is made available to the donor community and development banks to provide guidance on funding and support that they could be directed at agriculture. “Agriculture is vital for economic development, poverty alleviation and basic food security, and there will be a lot of spin-offs like processing of food and tree products for internal and external markets,” said Shepherd.

Category: Agriculture | Tags:


  • Johan Knols on 07th June 2010:

    Hello Ochieng,

    Nice article.
    But what will the efforts be to increase crop productions if situations like the destruction of the Mau Forest will not get under control?
    It shows that unstable governments, that especially want to enrich themselves, can hardly contain destruction of their natural assets.
    Let’s hope that AfSIS and the government will start to see that a change of policy is needed to bring back crop production for the people of Kenya.

  • Clare Herbert on 12th June 2010:

    I agree that the eradication of qulaity soil in Africa is a problem, albeit a very predicatable one. Much of the continent is arid and with climate change, weather extreme are even more pronounced. Similarly, the land has been used to farm the same crops for generations - 10, 20, 30 40, 50 YEARS growing maize on the same piece of land. It’s no wonder the soil quality has been reduced.

    But - there are scientific solutions too.

    Firstly, education about thinks like crop rotation, storage of crops, new methods of planting.
    Secondly, the planting of nitrogen fixing plants which improve the qulaity of the soil. Fast-growing trees and ground but plants are particularly successful.
    Thirdly, the introduction of better quality seeds, fertilisers, irrigation systems etc.

    If the crops don’t grow, millions die so tackling soil quality issues is always worthwhile.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 28th June 2010:

    NIce article. I think it underlines the iportance of envionrmentalism, when we think about development. It is not only about fighting poverty, but finding a way to live which does not empoverish the earth.

  • Helena Goldon on 16th August 2010:

    brilliant story, Ochieng. this is the time we need to act having the environmentalism in mind - before it’s too late.

    African soil is an amazing asset. I believe that, just like Johan suggested, it is a journalist’s job to also hold the government accountable for their promises and actions.

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