Muulgeta Ayene/WLE

Spectral technology is transforming soil restoration across Africa — and it’s scaling globally

Soil--plant spectral technology has aided communities and countries in improving soil fertility restoration across 17 African countries. The results? Data and maps have supported smarter agricultural investments, restoring soils and boosting production, food security and livelihoods. And now, growing investments and support brings the technology to new countries around the globe.

Fostered by  World Agroforestry (ICRAF)  and the  CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), soil spectroscopy is a light-based technology that makes it easy, fast and cheap to analyze large numbers of soil samples.

Soil degradation leads to substantial erosion and desertification, and slows food production. Smallholder incomes globally could grow by USD 35-40 billion by restoring just 12% of degraded agricultural land. Decision makers and governments across Africa had long worked to identify which preventive and restoration measures to implement, and where.

That's where this technology comes in. It quickly and cost effectively measures and maps soil and plant properties, also matching soil problems with solutions -- methods at unimaginable scalesusing traditional soil testing technology. By 2018, smallholders were benefitting from soil- and plant-testing services through satellite-based data and mobile laboratories. WLE also collaborated with partners to design and test a new, cheap, hand-held infrared sensor.

Soil samples to be prepped for spectral analysis. Saba, one of the lab technicians of the Soil-Plant Spectral Diagnostics Laboratory, handles soil samples to be prepared for spectral analysis. National Soil Testing Lab, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Muulgeta Ayene/WLE

Four African countries have since established national digital soil information systems through the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS). NGOs and the private sector also began delivering soil testing services to smallholder farmers.

And now, these initiatives are stretching to achieve global outcomes. Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania established national soil information systems using the technology and Rwanda has just started. Other national and state governments in Africa, Asia and elsewhere have requested support to target efforts for sustainable intensification and increased farm income, including Haiti, India and five additional African countries. Donor interest hasgrown with investment plans by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, European Union, Islamic Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, China Mountain Future Initiative, and GIZ.

Countries will also gain access to a global soil spectral library and prediction service, part of a WLE-led initiative of FAO's Global Soil Laboratory Network of the Global Soil Partnership, supported by the United States Department of Agriculture.In addition, WLE is harnessing a new high-resolution (30 m) digital soil properties map of Africa, led by Innovative Solutions for Decision Agriculture (iSDA), to contribute soil property predictions.

Lab technician prepares soil sample for spectral analysis. Wubit Teferi has worked for the Soil-Plant Spectral Diagnostics Laboratory of the EthioSIS project for four years. In this picture, she loads soil samples onto plates to be scanned spectrally. National Soil Testing Lab, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Muulgeta Ayene/WLE