Ground Breaking Africa-wide Soil Map to Support Poverty Alleviation and Help Boost Food Security / by Natalia Mroz

Published in: Columbia Global Centers | Columbia University

Columbia University’s Nairobi-based Global Center for Africa has begun implementing the next phase of the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) Project, with $4.902 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AfSIS is an African-led initiative which represents a historic first for the continent - it aims to develop the most comprehensive, high-resolution and real-time map of the continent’s soils and landscapes to date, and, if successful, is expected to serve as a model for the rest of the world. The detailed map will be used by African countries to manage natural resources and enhance the agricultural productivity of small holder farmers, by creating a platform for informed decision making about optimal land use. AfSIS will thereby play a key role in poverty reduction efforts across sub-Saharan Africa. Under the stewardship of the Columbia Global Centers | Africa, over the next eighteen months AfSIS will continue mapping activities underway since 2008, design innovative ICT applications and technologies, as well as develop business plans for the use of map data to ensure project sustainability in the future.

Africa’s population, and particularly the rural poor, is dependent on natural resources for food, fuel, and shelter. And yet, knowledge about the condition of African soils and landscapes which support these resources is incomplete and badly out of date. Africa’s population is projected to double over the next 25 to 30 years, which will place a growing burden on the agricultural sector. The economic loss of inappropriate soil use amounts to billions of dollars per year. Thus, improving the management, productivity and sustainability of African soils is an urgent priority. In response, AfSIS has pioneered a unique scientific effort to provide quality soil data to support “evidence-based” decision making which can enhance agricultural and economic productivity, environmental sustainability and climate change adaptation.

Specifically, over the next 18 months the project will build on the historic innovations developed during the first phase.

“AfSIS is an incredibly ambitious project with a bold vision which has overcome any number of risks and obstacles, particularly during field work – insecurity, floods, civil war and more. An unprecedented 17.5 million km2 encompassing more than 90 percent of Africa’s human population in 42 countries has been mapped to date, from the Zambezi to the Danakil” said Dr. Belay Begashaw, director of the Columbia Global Centers | Africa, “and this at a fraction of the cost of previous approaches.”

“At a continental scale more has been achieved in the last four years than in the previous fifty. This achievement has only been possible with the full engagement of the governments and partner institutions of the countries concerned,” says Dr. Begashaw.

By introducing new tools and technologies for mapping soils and ecosystems, AfSIS has brought soil science into the digital age and accelerated the pace at which detailed soil information can be accessed. These include tablets and mobile devices, GPS, infrared, X-ray and laser spectroscopy; alongside agronomic trials carried out with 374 households across Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Mali to give insight into soil health and productivity from the farmers’ perspective. These trails showed how climate change, fertilizer, farm labor, education and other factors impact farm productivity in different climatic zones in Africa, and therefore provide a basis for recommendations on optimal soil use to achieve higher crop yields whilst maintaining the integrity of the environment.

“As a result of this unique effort” says Dr. Markus Walsh, AfSIS Principal Investigator, “we can now accurately predict soil properties and optimal utilization at a resolution of 30m2 in some countries, and 500m2 across the continent.”

AfSIS is run by African Governments, National Soil Research Organizations, and local scientists, to ensure sustainability of the mapping effort beyond the funding period. Local stakeholders have provided extensive feedback to shape AfSIS to accommodate country needs.  Over 180 people have been trained by the project to date, and soil analysis laboratories set up in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mali, and Nigeria.

“AfSIS has made tremendous progress in laboratory analytics,” says Dr. Walsh, “the labs we have set up are the best in Africa and on a par with the rest of the world, and have greatly increased the speed with which soil samples can be analyzed.”

Until November 2014, Nairobi Center will coordinate the transition phase of AfSIS, during which focus will shift from mapping to the practical use of map information, such as the design of web-based soil management tools and recommendations for Governments, farmers, local agricultural extension agents, as well the development of business plans for possible commercial applications. These products and services will be planned and tested in four pilot countries – Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana – and it is anticipated that these will then be taken up by other African countries.

The transition period will build the project’s capacity to move to its final phase:

“In its second phase, and hopefully as a self-sufficient enterprise, AfSIS will address the need to make effective use of soil and landscape information in decision making at different scales – local, regional, national, farm-level. AfSIS will continue to make major contributions both to improving the quality of data on African soils, to stimulate increased productivity and better environmental stewardship while building capacity within national organizations,” says Dr. Begashaw.

Columbia Global Centers |Africa will work with a host of strategic partners, including:  Strathmore University, the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), the World Global Repository for Soil Information (ISRIC), and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Columbia Global Centers | Africa will host the AfSIS secretariat.