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This cinematic photorealistic image captures a small-scale farmer in Malawi who is practicing agroforestry by intercropping maize with Gliricidia sepium trees. The background features a lush, green field with thriving crops and trees. The farmer's content expression reflects the success of sustainable farming practices in enhancing yields and soil health.
Revitalizing African soil through regenerative agriculture improves food security and combats climate change Discover successful soil restoration initiatives and their impact

Harnessing the power of regenerative agriculture to save Africa’s soils and boost food security.

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

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Key Takeaways
African soils are degrading rapidly, releasing significant carbon dioxide.
Dr. Cary Fowler advocates for regenerative agriculture using indigenous crops.
Millet, sorghum, and yams improve soil health and boost yields.
VACS program treats plants and soil as a single system.
Regenerative practices offer a sustainable solution for Africa.

Soil Degradation in Africa

Africa’s soils are facing a severe crisis. Approximately 65% of the continent’s productive land is degraded. This degradation stems from agricultural expansion, deforestation, and climate change. As a result, soil fertility and biodiversity are declining rapidly. The process of degradation reduces land productivity and releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to climate change (Commonwealth Files).

This situation calls for urgent action to restore soil health and ensure sustainable agricultural practices. Without intervention, the degradation will continue, exacerbating food insecurity and environmental challenges.

How Soil Degradation Impacts Food Security in Africa

Soil degradation in Africa has a profound impact on food security, exacerbating the continent’s challenges in meeting the nutritional needs of its growing population. Here are the key ways in which soil degradation affects food security in Africa:

1. Reduced Agricultural Productivity

Soil degradation leads to a decline in soil fertility, directly impacting crop yields. Nutrient depletion, soil erosion, and loss of organic matter reduce the soil’s ability to support healthy plant growth. This results in lower agricultural productivity and, consequently, reduced food availability.

For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, soil fertility depletion is a primary cause of declining crop productivity, which has stagnated at less than 1.5 tons per hectare for cereals, despite the potential for much higher yields (Better Crops).

2. Increased Vulnerability to Climate Change

Degraded soils are less resilient to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change. Poor soil structure and reduced water-holding capacity make crops more susceptible to these events, leading to crop failures and food shortages.

In Ethiopia, for instance, degraded soils combined with high demand for natural resources have exacerbated environmental degradation and affected food production (The GEF).

3. Economic Costs

Soil degradation imposes significant economic costs on African countries. It reduces the land’s productivity, leading to lower agricultural output and higher food prices. This economic burden affects both rural and urban populations, increasing poverty and food insecurity.

The annual cost of soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be around $68 billion, reducing the region’s agricultural GDP by 3% (Better Crops).

4. Loss of Biodiversity

Soil degradation often leads to a loss of biodiversity, which is crucial for maintaining healthy ecosystems and sustainable agricultural practices. The decline in soil biodiversity affects the natural processes that support crop growth, such as nutrient cycling and pest control, further diminishing agricultural productivity and food security.

5. Desertification

Land degradation contributes to desertification, rendering large areas of land unusable for agriculture. This process not only reduces the amount of arable land but also displaces communities, leading to increased competition for remaining fertile land and exacerbating food insecurity.

Desertification affects around 45% of Africa’s land area, with significant portions at high risk of further degradation (UNEP).

6. Nutritional Deficiencies

Degraded soils produce crops with lower nutritional value, which can lead to malnutrition and health problems among the population. The decline in soil quality affects the nutrient content of food crops, making it difficult to meet dietary needs and contributing to widespread nutritional deficiencies.

7. Social and Political Instability

Food insecurity resulting from soil degradation can lead to social unrest and conflict. As communities struggle to access sufficient food, tensions can rise, leading to instability and displacement. This further complicates efforts to address food security and sustainable development in the region.

Regenerative Agriculture and Indigenous Crops

Dr. Cary Fowler, the U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security, champions regenerative agriculture as a solution to Africa’s soil crisis. This approach emphasizes restoring soil health through practices that enhance biodiversity, improve water retention, and increase organic matter in the soil.

Indigenous crops play a crucial role in this strategy.

“Indigenous crops like millet, sorghum, and yams are particularly suited for this approach because they are well-adapted to local conditions and can thrive in degraded soils” (FARA Africa).

These crops offer numerous benefits, including improved soil health, nutritional advantages, and climate resilience.

Benefits of Indigenous Crops

  1. Improved Soil Health: These crops help maintain soil structure and fertility, reduce erosion, and increase organic matter.
  2. Nutritional Benefits: Rich in essential nutrients, they address dietary deficiencies common in many African diets.
  3. Climate Resilience: Indigenous crops are resilient to extreme weather conditions, making them suitable for a changing climate.

Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS)

Dr. Fowler’s Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) program aims to combat soil degradation by treating plants and soil as a single system. The VACS program focuses on developing climate-resilient crop varieties, promoting soil health, and boosting agricultural productivity.

“Healthier soils can act as carbon sinks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions” (State Department).

Core Elements of VACS

  1. Climate-Resilient Crop Varieties: Investing in breeding programs for indigenous crops to create varieties that withstand climate change.
  2. Soil Health Promotion: Implementing soil management practices that restore and maintain soil fertility.
  3. Agricultural Productivity Boost: Enhancing crop yields through sustainable practices to ensure food security.

Implementation and Impact

The VACS initiative is a collaborative effort involving African governments, agricultural researchers, and civil society organizations. By integrating local expertise and traditional farming methods, the program seeks to build on existing knowledge and practices.

The potential impact of VACS is profound:

  1. Reversing Soil Degradation: Improved soil health aims to restore degraded lands and increase their productivity.
  2. Enhancing Food Security: Higher yields and more nutritious crops can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition.
  3. Mitigating Climate Change: Healthier soils act as carbon sinks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Bar graph showing the area restored by different soil restoration initiatives in Africa, including the Delfino Plough in Sahel, Regreening Africa Initiative, Soil-Plant Spectral Technology, Malawi Agroforestry and Conservation, and Rwanda Integrated Soil Fertility.
Comparison of land area restored by various soil restoration initiatives in Africa

Successful Case Studies of Soil Restoration in Africa

Several initiatives across Africa have demonstrated success in soil restoration, contributing to improved agricultural productivity, food security, and environmental sustainability. Here are some notable examples:

The Delfino Plough in the Sahel Region

The FAO’s Action Against Desertification (AAD) program introduced the Delfino plough in the Sahel region, including countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. This state-of-the-art heavy digger helps cut through hard, dry soil.

“The Delfino plough creates half-moon catchments that improve rainwater harvesting and soil permeability” (UN).

This method has restored large areas of degraded land, boosting agricultural productivity and providing vegetation cover.

Regreening Africa Initiative

Regreening Africa, supported by the European Union, worked across eight sub-Saharan African countries from 2017 to 2023. The initiative engaged over 600,000 households

“Regreening Africa restored more than 350,000 hectares of land, improving food security and biodiversity” (Forests News).

It combined tree planting, farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), soil and water conservation, and policy interventions tailored to local conditions. This approach has improved climate resilience.

Soil-Plant Spectral Technology

Developed by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), soil-plant spectral technology has been adopted in 17 African countries. This technology allows for quick and cost-effective measurement and mapping of soil properties, facilitating better-targeted soil management measures. It has helped create national soil information systems in countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania, significantly improving soil fertility and agricultural productivity.

Bar graph illustrating the yield increase percentage achieved by different soil restoration initiatives in Africa, highlighting substantial gains in Malawi's Agroforestry and Conservation program.
Yield increase percentage achieved through different soil restoration initiatives in Africa

Malawi’s Agroforestry and Conservation Agriculture

In Malawi, the introduction of conservation agriculture and intercropping with soil-improving trees like Gliricidia sepium has transformed small-scale farming. Farmers like Douglas Tana have seen maize yields increase from 250 kg to between 700 and 900 kg per year without the need for inorganic fertilizers. This practice is part of Malawi’s commitment to the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), aiming to restore 4.5 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.

“Farmers in Malawi have increased maize yields without inorganic fertilizers, thanks to conservation agriculture” (Mongabay).

Rwanda’s Integrated Soil Fertility Management

Rwanda has implemented integrated soil fertility management practices, significantly reducing soil erosion and improving rainwater infiltration. These practices have been adopted by 90% of the country’s coffee farmers, showing positive effects on soil health and crop productivity. The country’s efforts are part of its broader strategy to expand irrigated arable land and promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Moving Forward: Sustainable Soil Restoration for Africa’s Future

These case studies highlight the effectiveness of various soil restoration techniques across Africa. From advanced technologies like the Delfino plough and soil-plant spectral diagnostics to traditional practices like agroforestry and conservation agriculture, these initiatives demonstrate the potential for large-scale soil restoration to enhance food security, combat climate change, and improve livelihoods across the continent.

Overall, Dr. Cary Fowler’s advocacy for regenerative agriculture through the VACS program represents a promising approach to addressing soil degradation, food security, and climate change in Africa. By leveraging indigenous crops and sustainable farming practices, VACS aims to create a resilient and productive agricultural system that benefits both people and the environment.


Q: What is causing soil degradation in Africa?
A: Soil degradation in Africa is mainly caused by agricultural expansion, deforestation, and climate change, which lead to the loss of soil fertility and biodiversity.

Q: How do indigenous crops help in regenerative agriculture?
A: Indigenous crops like millet, sorghum, and yams improve soil health, boost yields, and offer nutritional benefits. They are well-adapted to local conditions and can thrive in degraded soils.

Q: What is the VACS program?
A: The Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) program, led by Dr. Cary Fowler, aims to combat soil degradation by treating plants and soil as a single system, focusing on climate-resilient crops, soil health, and agricultural productivity.

Q: How does regenerative agriculture mitigate climate change?
A: Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, which enhances the soil’s ability to act as a carbon sink, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

About the author:

Darius Spearman is a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College, where he has been pursuing his love of teaching since 2007. He is the author of several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at