Water is not only essential for the production of crops, fisheries and livestock, but also for the processing and preparation of these foods and products. Water is the lifeblood of ecosystems, including forests, lakes, and wetlands, on which the food and nutritional security of present and future generations depends. From soil to seed, to growth to harvesting, water is the key to Africa’s ability to harness and develop the continent’s food production potential.
Can Sub-Sahara Africa overcome the soil fertility exhaustion resulting from decades of nutrient depletion by small-scale farmers? In fact, there are many interventions and programmes at work to train farmers in more efficient management of the valuable resources of land and water.
- There is considerable understanding of the feasibility of restoring the nutrient value of the soil.
- Diagnosing soil fertility issues is becoming more affordable and information is moving more rapidly among the farming population.
- Traditional and new technologies are being combined, and more profitable use made of mineral fertilisers.
- Planting produce that has capacity to fix nitrogen in the soil, like legumes, is contributing to richer soil.
- Applying water and nutrients strategically at each plant source is helping to increase yields.
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Climate variation is a constant. Some areas will have less rain and more wind, others will be wetter than before, and it may become hotter and more humid in places that have not experienced volatility in weather for many years. In short, the affect of climate change in Africa is similar to that happening anywhere in the world, at any time.
- Floods can bring about disease in the form of cholera, malaria and diarrhoea, as well as damage to infrastructure like roads and telecommunications facilities, resulting in huge social and economic losses.
- Rising seas can contaminate ground water in coastal areas, disastrous for communities relying on borehole water or deeply rooted plants such as fruit trees.
- Drought has a particularly bad effect on the vulnerable, as small-scale farmers have fewer resources to counteract the financial losses drought invariably brings.
- Water and its preservation becomes a most vital and precious commodity in a drought situation, affecting both agriculture and health. Any crop failure due to poor weather conditions means loss of food security, especially for rural people.
That’s why using the intelligent, efficient and cost-effective method of drip irrigation should be paramount.
Irrigation and nutrition
Soil types on the African continent, or even within a given country, are not the same. And the trick is to “apply the right fertiliser at the right time, and in the right way”. Timing is essential. For plants to reach full vegetative growth and development, they need water of adequate quality, in appropriate quantity, and directly to the roots at the time they need it.
Controlled irrigation in this way, in small amounts, provides a powerful management tool against the vagaries of rainfall. Add high-yield seed varieties combined with good nutrition, effective pest control – and there is significant boost in yields.
In recent years, the spread of more affordable pumps and ‘smart’ drip technologies have enabled farmers to irrigate their small plots, and largely boosted harvests in arid areas previously thought impossible to farm, bringing greater access to food in these once lamentable ‘pockets of hunger’.
For millions of poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, access to water is the difference between surviving healthily and malnutrition. Water used minimally but efficiently can make the difference between productivity and enduring deprivation. Making clever use of even the scantiest rain can turn a farm into a going concern. Searching for underground water or transporting/diverting water from rivers and dams, is less problematic and expensive if at the end of the exercise, you are only going to need a few drops directly to the roots of your crops.
The Israeli invention of drip irrigation is changing the face of African farming, and has been gladly taken up in many African countries, such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Benin.
Improving the efficiency of water means enabling farmers to tackle production other than grains, shifting the focus to fruits and vegetables which bring in much higher revenue. Among the many values in drip irrigation, you will find:
- Run-off is eliminated and there is no loss of soil with wasted water.
- Fertiliser, herbicides and insecticides can be fed directly to the roots, along with the water.
- Drip irrigation can be easily adjusted to ensure perfect timing, and for specifically difficult areas.
- It creates a constant presence of water in the soil, helping to prevent erosion.
- Effective in most types of soil, drip irrigation works well in both shallow and marginal soil, and where soil has already been compromised.
- It protects the soil structure and improves the biological properties of the soil, therefore resulting in increased vegetation with more substantive root growth.
Achieving quantity and quality of food production through clever design is the credence that takes us ever forward, bringing both hope and rich harvest to the future of Africa.