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Project to intensify agricultural production in Great Lakes -- Africa's most impoverished region

IFDC and Netherlands launch project for soil health in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, DR Congo

The Netherlands Government is launching a project to promote peace and environmental stability by improving soil health, intensifying farm production, and increasing trade in one of the world's poorest areas: the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa.

The highest population density in Africa is in the Great Lakes Region: Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, western Tanzania, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The Great Lakes region already has far more people than its fragile soils can support," says Dr. Amit Roy, CEO of IFDC, An International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development. IFDC will implement the 5-year project.

"The region faces perpetual crises of poverty, social instability, war, and environmental degradation. The situation is rapidly worsening as deforestation intensifies and its soils are starved of nutrients."

Tiny Rwanda is typical. More than 340 persons are packed into each square kilometer, and population is growing by almost 3% annually. Almost all of Rwanda's population are subsistence farmers. Using existing technology, food production can be increased only by clearing and farming the ecologically important wetlands or, worse, the last relicts of parks and reserves, including habitats of mountain gorillas and other endangered wildlife and plants.

The region is the watershed for the Nile and Congo, two of the world's greatest rivers. Rapid deforestation and soil "mining," or depletion of plant nutrients, have caused severe soil erosion and decreased the soil's capacity to absorb and hold water. That, in turn, decreases the stability of the Nile and Congo's water flow downriver.

The CATALIST Project

The Netherlands Government, through the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Rwanda, has committed €22 million (US $28 million) to the project Catalyzing Acceleration of Agricultural Intensification for Stability and Sustainability (CATALIST). The Dutch Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGIS) is providing another €1.5 million ($1.9 million) through the Strategic Alliance for Agricultural Development in Africa (SAADA).

The CATALIST project will help maintain biodiversity, improve environmental management, intensify agricultural productivity, and develop markets for both agricultural inputs and the crops that poor farmers produce, in the Great Lakes region.Local people, refugees, and demobilized ex-combatants will be employed in labor-intensive public works to plant trees and build terraces and roads. The goal is to accelerate economic growth, reduce poverty, and promote peace and stability, partly by establishing or strengthening the capacities of farmer and agri-input dealer organizations. IFDC will work through farmers' organizations, several national and international NGOs, the private sector, donors, and other consortia.

Dr. Henk Breman, an IFDC agronomist and environmental specialist with two decades of experience working with African farmers, arrived in Rwanda to launch the project in early October.

"Soil nutrient depletion in the Great Lakes region is among the world's highest," Breman says. "From 80 to 135 kilograms of plant nutrients are lost from each hectare of land yearly—and the use of mineral fertilizers, which can replenish those lost plant nutrients, is among the world's lowest."

Most of the Great Lakes population survives on less than US $0.65 a day, says Dr. Balu Bumb, IFDC Economist and Program Leader for Policy, Trade, and Markets. The average farm size is less than 1 hectare. There are few alternatives to farming for rural employment. Few yield-increasing technologies, such as improved seeds, have been introduced. Fertilizer use is 3-4 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha). In comparison, the world use is 93 kg/ha, and farmers in the "Green Revolution" countries of Asia use 100 to 150 kg/ha.

"Agricultural markets are underdeveloped and fragmented in the Great Lakes region," Bumb says. "The project will strengthen markets for agricultural inputs and outputs by providing training for agri-input dealers and farmers' organizations. We'll also encourage partnerships between the public and private sectors to produce and market seeds, and to integrate fertilizer markets regionally."

The CATALIST project will holistically encompass areas in which IFDC has considerable experience and will work in a participatory manner with farmers and other stakeholders, "catalyzing" and facilitating stakeholder collaboration.

Farmers will be trained in integrated soil fertility management—the use of mineral fertilizers along with soil amendments such as crop residues, green and animal manures, and lime.

"The soil amendments interact with mineral fertilizers to improve soil quality, including the organic matter content, pH, and nutrient availability," Breman says. "That improves the efficiency—and thus, the profitability—of fertilizer use for smallholder farmers."

The Albertine Rift and Kagera River Basin

Agricultural intensification will be particularly important in the Albertine Rift and the Kagera River Basin, where social and environmental stability is most lacking.

The Albertine Rift, a steep mountain range with many volcanoes, stretches from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, and borders the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Soils are generally fertile, rainfall is abundant, and temperatures drop rapidly with increasing altitudes. Conservation International has named the Albertine Rift one of the world's "biodiversity hot spots"—home to more mammals, birds, and amphibians than anywhere else in Africa. Part of the region is still covered by tropical rain forest.

The Kagera Basin is in the border area of Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and is the headwater of the White Nile. Elevation averages 1,200 meters. Rainfall is relatively low, temperatures are high, and most soils are infertile.

"Population pressure in the lower plateaus has forced wild animals to their last refuges—the Albertine Rift and the Kagera Basin—over the past 30 years," Breman says. "Then commercial farmers started growing coffee and tea in the easily accessible areas, and poverty forced small farmers to clear land in the more difficult areas. War in the 1990s forced millions of refugees into the Great Lakes region."

Today, the region is generally peaceful—but with peace, pastoral farmers from Uganda and Tanzania are bringing in large cattle and goat herds to graze on the already-depleted soils.

"These factors all threaten the last relicts of extremely rich—but fragile—ecosystems," Breman says. "We will help harmonize efforts to feed the growing population of the Great Lakes region, while preserving its rich biodiversity and the ecosystem."

Africa Fertilizer Summit

"Fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa is the world's lowest, averaging only 8 kilograms per hectare," IFDC's Amit Roy says. "Cereal yields in Africa have stagnated at about 1 ton per hectare for the past three decades, and per capita food production has decreased."

The largest and most comprehensive effort to address Africa's soil fertility crisis—the Africa Fertilizer Summit—was held June 9-13 in Abuja, Nigeria. Leading African and international policymakers and agricultural experts highlighted the significant challenges that African farmers face as a result of declining soil fertility, and the potential productivity gains from even modest fertilizer use.

Heads of state and governments of more than 40 African nations declared both mineral and organic fertilizers a "strategic commodity without borders"—meaning that all cross-border taxes and tariffs should be lifted—in the historic Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for an African Green Revolution.

Thomas R. Hargrove | EurekAlert!
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