The road to African soil health

Summit stakeholders plot pathways to cross-continent, life-sustaining soil
In a Ghanaian savanna, people plant trees as part of the Regreening Africa programme. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

Related stories

Across the African continent, soil health – defined by the International Technical Panel on Soils (ITP) as “the ability of the soil to sustain the productivity, diversity, and environmental services of terrestrial ecosystems” – has been declining for decades. 

Shifting that trajectory requires serious collaboration across stakeholders and scales. “When it comes to soil health, there is a need for a paradigm shift: from demonstration plots to working with farmers in their own fields and at landscape scale – from the mountains all the way to rangelands,” said Leigh Ann Winowiecki, Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) systems scientist and its global Soil and Land Health Theme leader.

To that end, CIFOR-ICRAF researchers joined African heads of state, policy makers, private-sector players, farmer organizations, development agencies and others for the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit (AFSHS), held in Nairobi, Kenya from 7-9 May 2024. The event, which was attended by over 4,000 people brought together relevant stakeholders to highlight the crucial role of fertilizer and soil health in stimulating sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture – and to agree on a fertilizer and soil health action plan for the continent.  

Leigh Ann Winowiecki gives a keynote at the summit. Photo by Ann Wavinya/CIFOR-ICRAF

In all of the sessions, scientists echoed the importance of soil health and discussed ways of improving this at scale across Africa. For instance, during a session on advancements in soil health monitoring, Winowiecki highlighted the need to increase investment in this arena to fill key knowledge gaps and to prioritize and track interventions over time. “We have the tools and methods to track multiple indicators of soil health – on the ground and coupled with Earth Observation – as well as processes of land degradation,” she said. “The combination of scientific research and citizen science offers opportunities for scaling of monitoring efforts while also enhancing community engagement to enhance data.”

During another session on country plans for integrating the AFSH Action Plan into climate and food security policy frameworks, CIFOR-ICRAF soil scientist Ermias Betemariam highlighted a study carried out by CIFOR-ICRAF and the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) programme in seven African countries: Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Senegal, Zambia. 

The work revealed that integrating soil health and soil organic carbon into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change offers a critical opportunity to achieve countries’ climate change mitigation and adaptation objectives. This requires enhancing policy and investment strategies to improve institutional, technical, and laboratory capacities for monitoring soil organic carbon trends, said Betemariam. “In addition, fostering a robust data ecosystem to support evidence-based policies, highlighting the critical role of SOC in climate change mitigation and adaptation endeavours.” 

Ermias Betemariam (centre) speaks during a panel. Photo by Ann Wavinya/CIFOR-ICRAF

In another session on food systems transformation through evidence-based policy and practice, which was co-organized by the Coalition of Action for Soil Health (CA4SH), world-renowned soil scientist and Ohio State University professor Rattan Lal emphasized that soil stewardship and care should be a lifestyle embedded in the food we take, the water we drink and the air we inhale. 

“Africa will be the breadbasket of the world,” said Lal. “However, we need a roadmap for Africa – if you don’t have a roadmap, you don’t know where you are going. This summit is a critical roadmap for the continent to achieve its full agricultural potential”. 

Outside the Summit in Nairobi. Photo by Ann Wavinya/CIFOR-ICRAF

The summit culminated with the signing of the Nairobi Declaration and the launch of the Soil Initiative for Africa (SIA), the AFSHS Action Plan and the Africa Fertilizer Financing Mechanism. The Declaration makes several commitments to transform the continent’s use of its land, response to climate change, and ability to fulfil its farmers’ potential, while the SIA is an effort to systematically improve the health and productivity of the continent’s soils. The ten-year AFSHS Action Plan provides a detailed framework on how to achieve both the declaration and SIA goals and objectives. Finally, the Africa Fertilizer Financing Mechanism is a post-summit implementation mechanism to finance that plan.

Specific to soil health, the Nairobi Declaration committed to reverse land degradation and restore soil health on at least 30% of degraded soil by 2034 through the following actions. One of the proposed strategies to achieve this objective is to strengthen national, regional and international collaborative research and extension systems to tackle soil health challenges and improve the quality of support to smallholder farmers.

“We are thrilled to participate in the implementation of the Action Plan going forward,” said Winowiecki, “including on bringing soil health evidence to bear on decision making at the farm, national and international level.” 

Rattan Lal gives a keynote. Photo by Ann Wavinya/CIFOR-ICRAF

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting