Experts in African agriculture disagree over the most critical limiting factor on agricultural performance. Most believe that improvements in agricultural inputs are essential. Increase productivity – the argument goes – and resulting production surpluses will create an environment in which agricultural markets will become larger and more sustainable. A few believe that well-functioning markets are the key: markets, they argue, provide confidence to farmers to invest in improving production efficiency.
Within the inputs camp, there is a further division. Better planting material or better soil health – which is the critical factor? One of AAC’s directors, Walter Vandepitte, likened the use of highly engineered hybrid seeds on impoverished soils to “driving a Ferrari along a marram road”. The seed advocate will argue in response that adoption of improved seeds will lead farmers to increase their use of fertilizers, irrigation and crop protection products to safeguard their crops, increase yields and, indirectly, improve soil health.
I am not qualified to provide an opinion on these arguments, but it does seem to me to be self-evident that even the best and most robust planting material is useless if grown in unsuitable soil conditions. Gardeners and farmers have always known this – indeed, before the dawn of manufactured fertilisers and crop protection products, they used to practice systems of crop rotation: on the logic that the nutrients taken out of soil by crops need to be replaced.
East African soils are fragile and vulnerable. A great deal of land is given over to monoculture, especially maize. The sun is strong, baking exposed soil and depleting nutrients. Rainfall is frequently heavy and can wash away topsoil. Few farmers compost organic material or have access to sufficient animal manure for fertilizer. All these factors combine to cause rapid depletion in soil nutrients and, if unchecked, result in soil acidification and ultimate infertility. This is a very serious problem.
One of AAC’s investees is a company called Lachlan Kenya (http://www.griculture.co.ke/) Based in Nairobi, this company distributes and markets a wide range of crop protection products throughout East Africa. Recognizing the importance of effective soil management products, the business also distributes a range of micro-nutrient fertilizers (especially important in horticulture), humic acid (which accelerates the decomposition of organic material in the soil and facilitates the uptake of nutrients) and, most interesting of all, a nitrogen-fixing biological fertilizer marketed under the brand name Twin-N. These products, and others, all have potential to improve soil health, something which is urgently required in much of East Africa.
Returning to the analogy of the absurdity of driving a Ferrari on a marram road, anyone who has visited Kampala recently will know that the city’s roads are afflicted by potholes and that a 4WD vehicle is almost a necessity in certain areas. Picture my surprise, then, when I saw an extremely handsome Bentley (registration number JH) cruising the city streets a few days ago. Subsequent research revealed that the Bentley’s owner is a young lady called Judith Heard (picture above). Kampala residents are no strangers to exotic vehicles – Hummers and Lexuses are frequently sighted – but most at least pay lip service to the necessity of having a high clearance vehicle. For sheer chutzpah, there is something wonderfully impractical about a Bentley which takes it straight to the top of the show-off chart. Bravo Ms Heard!