Many of the famines that have plagued Africa over the past four decades have not come because of lack of rain, but because of deteriorating soil quality.
That claim runs counter to the conventional wisdom spun everywhere from media outlets to political commentary.
Yet it’s true. It’s not to say that lack of precipitation isn’t a major contributing factor. When it doesn’t rain, it’s hard to find food.
But dry spells aren’t the direct cause of famine in many parts of Africa; they’re just what exposes the root problem of poor soil. Healthier soil and better crop management could help ensure harvests despite drought conditions.
That means solving the food crises that periodically afflict parts of the African continent requires improved soil conditioning.
Saying that is one thing; adapting these techniques in context can be harder. Many countries that suffer from these conditions tend to be economically poorer, meaning the available investment budgets are small. There have to be enough resources to go around. Expertise in modern growing methods is scarce in these parts. Getting the word out can be hard. What to do?
Sometimes, however, the best solutions are among the simplest. Agroforesters have embarked on some exciting breakthroughs in places like Cameroon. What they’re doing may reverberate far beyond the African countries where they’re being pioneered.
Cameroon occupies a part of the Congo Basin where cash crops like coffee are grown for export. That kind of monoculture growing tends to degrade the soil and leave Cameroonian farmers exposed to fluctuations in commodity prices. It’s a familiar story in Africa: poor farmers who could use soil to grow crops to sustain themselves instead focus on fulfilling demand for exports because that’s where they make the most money. That arrangement is a recipe for food insecurity and instability, a specter that haunts ag experts’ imaginations today.
Enter agroforestry. While there are high-tech tools for managing soil quality, simply diversifying crops and using bio-available resources like rotting tree matter can make a dramatic difference in the lives of Cameroonian farmers.
Varied planting helps recharge the soil naturally. It prevents the same resources from being drained year over year, season after season. It also helps insulate farmers against falling prices for monoculture crops like coffee.
Even more significantly, agroforesters are encouraging Cameroonian farmers to use tree matter to help regulate soil temperatures and raise water levels.
It’s a counterintuitive truth. You’d think it would be foolish to try to plant trees in parched corners of the earth, like the arid regions of northern Cameroon.
But that’s precisely what Amsterdam-based startup Land Life is doing: planting 40,000 trees to help raise water levels, retain moisture, prevent creeping desertification, and maintain soil temperatures.
It will take time to transform the landscape of Cameroonian farming. But agroforestry techniques are already starting to change the shape of Cameroonian agriculture. They’re simple, they’re effective, they don’t cost much, and they yield lasting results.
And if they work in Cameroon, they just might help heal degraded soils in other places, too.