Healthy soil is a fundamental building block for ensuring the future of numerous small-scale farming families in Africa. By offering long-term assurance of good harvests and nutrition, it provides secure livelihoods for people in rural Africa. However, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), one third of the world’s soils are degraded. As a result of climate change, small-scale farmers suffer from lower biodiversity, long droughts, soil erosion, and torrential rainfall. Cotton made in Africa takes these challenges very seriously. It wants to be part of the solution by enabling cotton farmers to become more resilient to the effects of climate change. Measures for sustainable soil management are firmly entrenched in Cotton made in Africa’s standards. Small-scale farmers are offered regular training in sustainable soil management, which encompasses issues like crop rotation, zero tillage, integrated pest management, and the preservation of biodiversity. To provide additional support for sustainable soil management, Cotton made in Africa launched CAR-iSMa, a co-operative project with a total budget of around EUR 2.8 million. The project’s primary objective is to improve soil management through sustainable production methods in order to better the livelihoods of small-scale farming families, reduce the effects of climate change for this target group, and strengthen their resilience.
CAR-iSMa is short for “Climate Adaption and Resilience: A Pan-African Learning and Knowledge Exchange Project on Improved Soil Management”. Created at the initiative of the Aid by Trade Foundation, the project is being supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and is being implemented together with the agriculture organisation LDC Suisse and with three CmiA-verified cotton companies: CIDT from Côte d’Ivoire, JFS from Mozambique, and LDC from Zambia. Soil & More Impacts (SMI), a company that provides services for sustainable agriculture with a focus on soil and composting, is supporting the project by offering advice on how to increase soil fertility. SMI is also working with three cotton companies in Africa to start providing small-scale farmers with training in composting and regenerative cultivation methods.
Slated to run through 2024, the project is expected to benefit around 100,000 people working in cotton production. The focus is on small-scale farmers supported by local, CmiA-verified cotton companies. This co-operative project is also planned to include a qualification programme for soil-management trainers as well as training material for agricultural consultants. Innovative approaches like self-cultured compost microbes and pyrolysis – which produces vegetable carbon, thereby capturing carbon in the soil for the long term as well as improving the soil structure and water-retention capacity – are planned to be tested as part of the project before being rolled out in CmiA’s wider network if possible. The plan is to enhance 92,000 hectares of land, which is approximately equivalent to the area of Berlin, by improving soil fertility.
Another area of focus is a transnational and inter-organisational knowledge exchange between the participating cotton companies. To scale up the long-term benefits of the lessons learnt and of the positive experiences, successful approaches should be implemented in the entire CmiA network in Africa after the end of the project. In this way, AbTF aims to continue improving the small-scale farmers’ production practices.
Soil is a central if often neglected aspect of protecting the climate and ensuring humanity’s survival. The way we use our soil has significant implications for people, climate, and nature, and it plays a role in deciding whether unique species of plants and animals remain extant and whether humanity will be able to live from the soil in the future. The livelihoods and continued survival of small-scale farmers in Africa largely depend on how changing climate conditions affect the fertility of their soil. A lack of healthy soil threatens the existence of this vulnerable group, which grows raw materials that all of us consume every day.
We discussed the greatest challenges in maintaining healthy soil with Britta Deutsch, Head of Project for the Aid by Trade Foundation, and Inka Sachse, Senior Consultant Agriculture at Soil&More Impacts, a consulting firm that offers services for sustainable agriculture with a focus on soil and composting. In this interview, they addressed the most important measures for working with small-scale farmers in Africa to secure soil fertility for the long term and to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Head of Project for the Aid by Trade Foundation
Senior Consultant Agriculture at Soil&More Impacts
Ms Deutsch, the effects of climate change are very tangible for small-scale farmers in Africa, who are experiencing torrential rainfall, devastating droughts, reduced soil fertility, shrinking biodiversity, and shorter growing seasons. Why is it hitting the small-scale farmers so hard?
Global warming has a massive impact on everyone whose livelihood depends on the environment and the yields of the soil. Small-scale farmers are among the most vulnerable because many have no access to the knowledge, resources, and funds they need to secure their livelihoods or diversify their incomes. To address these issues, we need to limit global warming and develop strategies for the cotton farmers to adapt to the changing climate and all of its implications. These tasks are challenging yet crucial—not only for the international community but also for Cotton made in Africa.
Could you provide some specific examples of how Cotton made in Africa is responding to these massive changes?
To strengthen the resilience of the small-scale farmers, CmiA regularly collaborates with agricultural experts and local cotton companies to develop training material on regenerative agriculture, which includes aspects like water management and biodiversity. Through regular training, the cotton farmers have the opportunity to better adapt their cultivation methods to changing climate conditions and to develop sustainable strategies for securing their yields in the long term. CmiA also supports cotton companies with implementing special projects like CAR-iSMa, a co-operative project that has a total budget of EUR 2.8 million and is being conducted in three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa – Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, and Zambia – together with CmiA-verified cotton companies. The project’s objective is to make cotton farmers more resilient to the effects of global warming by improving soil health, for example through composting.
Soil has often been neglected in discussions about climate change. Why is soil fertility an increasingly important topic, including in the context of global warming?
Soil degeneration is a widespread problem and, due to the effects of climate change, a growing challenge for cotton farmers in Africa. Around 65 percent of the continent’s arable land is affected by erosion-based losses of topsoil and soil nutrients. Chemical fertilisers can replace lost nutrients to a certain extent, but they cannot replace lost organic material. Over time, this significantly reduces soil quality and increases vulnerability to erosion. Because soil can play a key role in mitigating climate change by storing carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we created the CAR-iSMa project with the aim of actively investing in soil health to enable small-scale farmers to live from the yields of their soil in the long term.
Ms Sachse, how can Soil&More contribute to making cotton farmers in Africa more resilient through the CAR-iSMa project?
Soil&More works closely with cotton company employees called extension officers, who conduct the training with the cotton farmers. They are equipped with the necessary knowledge, practical methods, and training materials to successfully support farmers with gentle and restorative soil management, which has a positive effect on the health of their soil and on their own productivity. We supply the necessary practical training, explanatory videos, quizzes, tests, leaflets, and posters, which were created in conjunction with AbTF. In addition, we assist small-scale farmers or cotton company employees with their field testing.
What activities are you conducting for the CAR-iSMa project in conjunction with CmiA and cotton companies in Africa?
The activities vary by country. Composting and organic fertilisers play a key role everywhere. Other activities focus on soil health, catch and nurse crops, erosion prevention, and the integrated or natural management of pests and diseases. All of these measures serve to provide small-scale farmers with knowledge in natural and efficient methods for sustainable soil management. Discussions about biochar or carbon farming also vary from country to country.
What do the terms biochar and carbon farming mean, and what is innovative about these two approaches?
Biochar is biomass carbonised at high temperatures and without oxygen; the fire is extinguished before the biomass turns to ash. Biochar has a very high surface area for its mass. During composting or when mixed with manure, its large surface area absorbs nutrients and micro-organisms, which it can store in the soil for a long time, thereby also presenting an opportunity to capture carbon in the soil.
The term carbon farming encompasses all agricultural activities that help to store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in soil or plants. In addition to improving soil quality, it lets farmers generate additional income by selling carbon credits. Both issues are currently being reviewed for technical, scientific, methodological, and legal feasibility.
You recently made an in-person visit to offer small-scale farmers in Côte d’Ivoire training in composting and soil health. Could you give some specific examples of how you approach your work with the cotton farmers?
We start by digitally sharing a lot of content with the cotton companies. Once we arrive on site, we learn a lot from the farmers and from trainers working for the cotton companies. Our approach involves us spending several days driving to the villages and meeting under mango trees with farmers and village representatives to learn more about their methods, experiences, and challenges. Then, we inspect individual fields and cultivation and compost attempts. We adapt our training sessions and materials to the situation and incorporate feedback from participants and cotton companies.
What is the key to success with this approach?
Respect, cultural sensitivity, openness, and a sense of humour.
Thank you very much for this interview, Ms Sachse.
Thank you as well. We owe special thanks and respect to the people who work at AbTF and at the cotton companies, skilfully supporting so many small-scale farmers and addressing all of these issues while remaining open for new approaches and experiences.
1Source: Zingore, Shamie; Mutegi, James; Agesa, Beverly; Desta, Lulseged Tamene; Kihara, Job. 2015. Soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa and crop production options for soil rehabilitation. Better Crops with Plant Food 99 (1): 24–26 / https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314086224_Soil_Degradation_in_sub-Saharan_Africa_and_Crop_Production_Options_for_Soil_Rehabilitation
Created at the initiative of the Aid by Trade Foundation, the project is being supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and is being implemented together with the agriculture organisation LDC Suisse and with three CmiA-verified cotton companies: CIDT from Côte d’Ivoire, JFS from Mozambique, and LDC from Zambia.
About GIZ: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is an internationally operating service provider for international co-operation in sustainable development and international educational activities. GIZ has more than 50 years of experience in a wide variety of subject areas, from economic and employment projects to energy and environmental issues to security and peace building. As a non-profit governmental organisation, GIZ provides support to the German government, especially the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and to many public and private contracting entities in around 120 countries as they pursue their goals in international co-operation. To this end, GIZ works with its partners to develop effective solutions that offer people opportunities and improve their living conditions in the long term.
About Compagnie Ivoirienne pour le Développement des Textiles (CIDT): Based in Bouaké, this Ivorian cotton business was founded in 1974, making it the country’s oldest cotton company. CIDT is working to improve the living conditions of small-scale farmers. In addition to marketing cotton, the company is also involved in projects that provide healthcare and improve rural education opportunities.
About Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC) Suisse SA: Founded in 1851, this company is one of the world’s top five processors and traders of agricultural products like coffee, sugar, rice, cotton, cereal crops, and oil-bearing seeds. LDC Suisse’s goal is to create fair and sustainable value that is reflected in co-operative partnerships with producers. In terms of cotton, for example, this approach has resulted in a long-term partnership with Cotton made in Africa (CmiA).
About Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC) Zambia: This company has extensive experience in the cotton sector in Zambia and has been a leading agricultural arm of the Louis Dreyfus Company since 2012. LDC Zambia supports small-scale farmers by providing input financing for cotton and other commodities like maize, soya, or peanuts in order to support income diversification and strengthen resilience to market changes.
About Sociedade Algodoeira do Niassa JFS: Founded in 1939, SAN-JFS is the oldest cotton company in Mozambique, having successfully weathered difficult chapters in the country’s history. The company has a great deal of experience in the cotton sector and in the field of sustainability. Through partnerships, SAN-JFS pursues improved access to financial services, non-cotton markets, and a power supply in rural areas.
About Soil & More Impacts: Soil & More Impacts advises companies on sustainability and climate protection, with a fundamental emphasis on fertile soil as a store of carbon dioxide. Soil & More Impacts provides support with reporting, strategy development, data collection and evaluation, and implementation in the field. Since 2007, Soil & More Impacts has advised agricultural entities on soil fertility and launched composting projects of all sizes in over 40 countries throughout the world.