Q&A: Improving Soil Health and Fertility to Strengthen Rural Resilience

Soil health and adequate fertility are at the foundation of healthy crops and prosperous small-scale farming communities. Rigorous research can identify and influence government policies and investments that strengthen sustainable and resilient food systems.

Feed the Future ALL-IN principal investigator John Olwande is testing practical ways to encourage small-scale farmers to test their soils and to apply appropriate soil amendmentsThese efforts can help to expand economic opportunities for smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs to build resilient households and communities.

In this Q&A, Olwande discusses his research, some challenges for agriculture in Africa and the bright future for research in the sector. Olwande is a research fellow at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University. He holds a Ph.D. in community sustainability from Michigan State University and a M.Sc. in agricultural and applied economics from Egerton University. He is also a founding member of the ALL-IN Research Network.

What is some of your current and recent research?

My areas of research include agricultural technology adoption and sustainable intensification, food and nutrition security, agricultural markets and impact evaluation. I am passionate about the resilience and sustainability of food systems.

One of the emerging findings from several studies in SSA is that much of the agricultural growth that has been witnessed in the region in the past two decades has been due to expansion of land under cultivation rather than improvement in yields, and the main culprit for lack of yield growth is widespread poor soil health. The poor health of soils makes crops response to external inputs (e.g. fertilizer and improved seed varieties) sub optimal. 

My current research aims at identifying and influencing policy and investment by governments, development organizations and private sector for increasing fertilizer use and improving soil health in SSA as part of the efforts towards building resilience and sustainability in agricultural production systems in the region. Two of my research engagements support this endeavor.

The first is the research I am doing through the ALL-IN grant – Demand for Soil Testing Services and Amendments on Smallholder Farmers in Kenya. The second is the collaborative work with colleagues at the ReNAPRI, AAP, IFDC, FAO and FARA to provide technical support to the African Union in organizing an Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit to be held in June 2023 and for which the key outcome will be an Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan. 

What have been some of the challenges you have seen as a researcher?

One of the major challenges for the agricultural sector in SSA is governments’ low funding to the sector, which has not been commensurate with the sector’s contribution to the economy for the region. This low funding has affected adaptive research and innovation, and subsequently the pace of technology generation and adoption, and agricultural and economic transformation in the region. 

What is the most exciting part of your work?

The most exciting part of my research work is collaboration and partnerships across disciplines and geographical space. Collaboration broadens my view about a research problem and helps me learn about and have better understanding regarding possible approaches to solving the problem.

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