As the population of most African countries continues to grow rapidly, it’s never been more important to ensure the health – and therefore the fertility – of the continent’s soil.

But ambitions do not end with self-sufficiency. According to Øystein Botillen, Stakeholder Relations and Business Development Manager, Crop Nutrition, Business Unit Africa at Yara International, there is a growing conviction that Africa can also be the breadbasket of the world.

But according to keynote speaker Dr Bernard Vanlauwe, Director R4D, Central Africa and Natural Resource Management, IITA, any increases in Africa’s productive capacity are being driven through the expansion of land use, not growing yields. And while the use of fertiliser is growing, it is probably not by enough.

In fact, Vanlauwe believes, African agriculture is at a defining moment, with the next three to five years determining whether or not the continent will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A number of enabling factors are required if it is to achieve the productivity growth that’s required, from innovative new solutions to increased market understanding by farmers, from the right partnerships to an enabling policy environment.

Above all, nations must follow through on their Malabo commitments, particularly the goal of focusing at least 10 percent of public expenditure on agriculture. Critically, with young people making up most of the population growth, youth must be integrated into national, regional and continental investment plans. As Dr Vanlauwe said, they must receive mentoring, financial support and the realistic opportunity of becoming agripreneurs.

This was put into interesting relief by the comments of Dr Martin Fregene, Director, Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank, who highlighted the depth of concern about youth unemployment in Africa with a single key fact. The average age of a farmer in Argentina is 42. In Africa it is 60.

Dr. Charles Bucagu, Deputy Director General, Agriculture Research and Technology Transfer, Rwanda Agriculture Board, explored how R&D can be made accessible to smallholder farmers of any age.

He described a Rwandan programme, underway since 2007, that’s designed to solve the problem of low productivity. In this, the Government provided farmers with seed and fertiliser to familiarise them with the benefits of inputs. Success in this means it is currently reducing subsidies. In a major post-harvest success story, maize yields have multiplied by five times thanks to state support of systems for farmers and creating linkages to ensure produce reaches the market.

Similarly, Dr Christian Witt, Senior Programme Officer, Soil Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted how the organisation started investing 10 years ago in the then neglected area of soil health. Now, he said, we need to put the right data together to inform decision making.

Ishmael Sunga, CEO of SACAU, concurred with Dr Witt on the importance of analytics, highlighting the need to identify relevant and significant enough samples when collating statistics and data. And Dr Rebbie Harawa, Head of Soil Fertility and Fertilizer Systems at AGRA, emphasised the importance of ensuring that the correct health information moves quickly from laboratory to farmers. As he explained, AGRA plans to work with partners to reach nine million farmers with soil health information over the next five years.

Yield is the biggest challenge, according to Dr Bashir Jama Adan, Lead, Food Security Specialist at the Islamic Development Bank. We should continue the trajectory where we are achieving progress, providing the right fertilisers and other sources of nutrients, bringing livestock on stream to provide manure rotation and introduce mechanisation.