“In Koboko Village in Malawi in September 2009, some 30 mothers and their children were gathering under a huge shade tree—the traditional site for the village’s meetings. Gradually they squeezed together on an assortment of hand-woven mats and rough-hewn wooden chairs. The village chief and a few of his advisors faced the women, seated next to an outsider who was there to ask a series of questions. “What,” the outsider began, “is the most important single problem that prevents you from having enough food to feed your children well?”
Without even waiting for a village male authority to answer, one of the taller women spoke up: “Our soil is tired out. And it’s getting worse every year.” Almost before she had finished, four or five other women chimed in, all talking at once: “Yes, what she says is true.” “Last year I harvested 35 bags of maize. But this year I only harvested 27, even though it rained well.” “We no longer have any way to keep our fields fertile.” “Our soil has become so hard that even when it rains, the water just runs off.” When things died down again, the village chief, calmly and authoritatively, put his stamp of approval on the obvious consensus by voicing his heart-felt agreement.
The visitor was surprised. Malawi, just five years earlier, had suffered one of Africa’s worst droughts ever. People became so hungry that they were cooking up and eating the bark off of trees. Millions would have died if tons of emergency food had not been distributed throughout the country. Yet in this village, everyone concurred that soil fertility was an even greater problem than drought. The outsider asked why. The women explained that, sure, the droughts had been horrible. But droughts had only occurred a couple of times in more than a decade, whereas soil fertility was threatening to destroy their food supply permanently—forever.
The women were absolutely unanimous, as were the men. They were adamant. And they were obviously scared. Even though they were among the planet’s poorest people, they had never in their lives faced such a long-term and apparently insoluble threat to their survival. Over the next year, as part of two major studies, interviews were conducted with farmers from more than 75 villages in six African nations (Malawi and Zambia in Southern Africa, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, and Mali and Niger in West Africa). With very few exceptions the same story was repeated everywhere. People no longer had any way of maintaining soil fertility. Harvests were crashing, dropping 15–25 percent a year. Most people expect that in five years they will harvest less than half what they get now. Yet they are already in desperate straits. Some villages now depend permanently on food aid. Whole villages are planning to uproot themselves and wander across the landscape looking for fertile land, a reasonable survival strategy back when Africa was not so full of people. But today, in most of Africa it is a strategy with very little chance of success.
That Africa is facing a soil fertility crisis is no news to the well-informed. But that the tragedy is rushing at us so quickly that tens of millions of people could starve within the next four or five years is big news indeed. The continent faces an imminent tragedy: a Great African Famine.”
This is the introduction to the article titled “Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine”, by Roland Bunch, world renowned agroecologist, author of Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, and Mali Program Coordinator for Groundswell International.
The full text of the article may be found in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.
The findings of the Nourishing the Planet project were gathered over the course of a year spent researching on the ground in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, and the book draws on these experiences and hundreds of innovations that are already working to outline 20 proven, environmentally sustainable prescriptions for alleviating hunger and poverty. With the global food and agriculture crisis reaching dangerous new heights, there is no time to waste: read the State of the World 2011 to learn how the world’s leading agricultural thinkers, including Groundswell’s Roland Bunch, are working with farmers to ensure a sustainable, healthy future for Africa.