New technology helps produce detailed African soil fertility map

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A NEW map displaying soil fertility every 30m across Africa has been developed to help improve the production of food in all of the continent’s 54 nations. Armed with information regarding the capability of the soil, farmers can decide on which areas are most suitable for specific crops and know where more nutrients are required to sustain better plant life.

Thanks to a group of international scientists that developed the map using a combination of soil spectral technology, satellite data and machine learning, Africa is the first continent to chart its soil fertility in every single field. The map has been produced by iSDA, a social enterprise founded by three research institutes, Rothamsted Research, World Agroforestry and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Dr Jonathan Crouch, CEO of iSDA said: “For the first time, farm level soil data is now available for the entire African continent. With ever growing demand for food, it is critical that we find ways to increase productivity in sustainable ways that also allow millions of smallholders to improve their livelihoods“. Adding “If we know the current status of essential soil nutrients, we can maximize productivity, profitability and environmental benefits.

A digital soil map to help tackle malnutrition

The goal of the map is to help tackle the major human health challenges caused by food grown in poor quality soil, including the estimated 1.1 million child deaths caused each year by malnutrition.

From the Tunisian coast, all the way to the Cape, some 5,000 miles away, the iSDAsoil map charts the continent’s 3.4 million square miles of potential agricultural land in unrivalled detail at roughly 24 billion locations. It means that for every single field on the continent, vital information such as the acidity, organic content, and nutrient levels of the soil is now available. This can help advise farmers in a number of different areas, such as yield forecasting, crop suitability and fertiliser application.

Due to their extreme old age, unforgiving climates, and decades of unsustainable management, large areas of Africa are heavily depleted of nutrients, strongly acidic or low in organic carbon. Poor soil fertility has long been recognised as a major contributor to Africa’s high incidences of child mortality, stunting, and wasting. Fortifying soils with magnesium, zinc or other commonly missing nutrients through specially prepared fertilisers is known to be effective in improving human health, but to do so requires details of the particular deficiencies in the soil, which can vary significantly across even short distances.

The new soil map developed by iSDA will help to target nutrients where they are most needed. Many African farmer’s fields are far smaller in size than those in Europe and the 30m resolution of iSDAsoil finally lays the foundation for individually tailored, field level advice for smallholders which represents a significant improvement on the 250m resolution available previously.

Rothamsted’s Professor Steve McGrath, a soil scientist who has been heavily involved in the project from its very beginning, said Africa will now have access to more detailed soil information than many European countries, including the UK. “In the UK we only have national coverage at a scale of 1000m,” he said. “Even though we have had this data for many years, it has never really been used, and because we know now that there is so much variation in soil properties within individual fields, it means this resolution of soil data is virtually useless for farm-level decisions.”

Precision agriculture thanks to local scientists

iSDA is partnering with companies working directly with smallholders in Africa where map data can help those companies to provide accurate and affordable advice for farmers. For example, optimising the type and quantity of fertiliser based upon the soil properties and the crop being grown.

iSDAsoil has been made possible thanks to the development of faster and cheaper soil testing, utilising infra-red spectral techniques, which allow hundreds of samples a day to be tested even in remote labs with very limited access to resources. This has enabled local scientists to analyse the thousands of soil samples taken across their countries.

Dr Matt Miller, lead data scientist at iSDA said: “Soils are fundamental to life on earth, but knowledge about African soil has been incomplete and out-dated. In order to continue to feed the fast-growing population sustainably, there is an urgent need to generate accurate, up-to-date soil health information to support agricultural development, environmental sustainability and fight climate change.”

In addition to improving health and livelihoods, iSDAsoil will also be of use in the battle against climate change by, for example, optimising soil carbon capture and increasing soil quality and resilience.

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Chris McCullough is a freelance multi-media journalist based in Northern Ireland and specialises in all aspects of agriculture. He has spent the past 18 years travelling the globe hunting for the best stories in food, farming and politics. He has reported extensively from overseas, mostly throughout Europe but also from USA, Canada, India, Australia and African countries on various topics. He has won a number of awards for his photos and journalism and is always on the lookout for his next exclusive.

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