Samuel Gameda Talks about one of the ATA’s Flagship Projects: EthioSIS

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Photo credit: Todd Benson/IFPRI

"Already, our samples are telling us that Ethiopia’s soil is deficient in as many as six essential nutrients.” -Samuel Gameda, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow

Meet Sam Gameda, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow who also serves as the Director of Soil Health and Fertility at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). Dr. Gameda launched one of the ATA’s flagship projects:  the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS), which is aimed at creating a National Soils Database (NSD) and a digital soil map of Ethiopia. Soil specialists are harnessing technologies such as remote sensing, satellite imagery, and spectroscopic readings with a rich collection of soil samples—over 100,000 once sampling has concluded— to create this one-of-a-kind map in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia does have soil maps, but they are no longer useful, relying on soil surveys that are dated by three decades or more. These old maps contain information on the soil types dispersed throughout Ethiopia, but the new maps will take it one step further. “We are doing two types of soil sampling,” says Gameda. The first level will provide updated information on Ethiopia’s soil properties that can help to identify the soils that are best suited for farming and how to best manage them. The second level—focusing on woredas (counties) in Ethiopia’s agricultural belt— is soil fertility sampling, which will show what nutrients have been depleted from the soils. “Already, our samples are telling us that Ethiopia’s soil is deficient in as many as six essential nutrients,” says Gameda. These missing nutrients include Boron, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, and Zinc.

 

Ethiopian_Soil_Survey_Status_Dec2013Breaking down the science behind digital soil maps

There’s a lot of science behind developing a digital soil map. First, field teams collect soil samples at specific confluence points throughout the country. Then lab technicians perform a chemical analysis to identify the properties of the soil. A spectroscopic reading of the soil is also done by, in simple terms, shining a light on the soil sample. Scientists can then identify the properties in the soil, such as minerals, organic matter, and water-holding capacity, by registering the light signatures reflected back from the sample. All of this information is used to create the digital soil map.

To keep the maps up-to-date, the soil data has been linked with satellite imagery of Ethiopia. Changes in the soil composition will be visible in the spectral imagery collected through satellite imaging. “Satellite imagery correlated with the soil samples collected can show changes in soil’s properties, where there are still nutrient deficiencies, or areas [where soil fertility] is improving,” Gameda says. “It’s an evolving map, and the satellite imagery will help keep the soil maps up-to-date.”

Soil fertility mapping

To date, the ATA team has collected and evaluated soil and vegetation samples in 162 woredas. In 2014, soil teams will add an additional 198 woredas to the total. This information will allow soil specialists to pinpoint soils in the woredas that are, for example, nearly depleted of Phosphorous, Zinc, and other nutrients.  According to Gameda, using technology adopted from the Africa Soil Information Service (AFSIS), and the soils sampled from the woredas, soil scientists can make predictions of the soil needs of the rest of the country. So far, the picture isn’t pretty.  Ethiopian soils are severely lacking in many nutrients essential for plant growth. This revelation has led to an offshoot of the EthioSIS project: fertilizer blending facilities.

When it comes to fertilizers, farmers currently rely on two types: DAP and urea, which only supply Nitrogen and Phosphorus to the soil. Farmers apply the same amount of fertilizer, regardless of the crop grown or the soil fertility—or infertility— in their area. With the new soil maps, however, soil specialists will have the information needed to create fertilizer blends that target missing nutrients in specific locations and that are best suited for the type of crop being grown.  Together, soil scientists from the ATA, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) have developed six fertilizer blends that can be adjusted according to the location of four major cereal crops in Ethiopia—maize, teff, wheat and barley. These blends can include up to six different nutrients.

Last year, the ATA, along with the MoA and the Regional Bureaus of Agriculture, introduced two of the six blended fertilizers formulas to over 25,000 model farmers and recorded impressive results. In 2014, the ATA will expand the rollout to an even larger number of farmers. The rollout will include several phases and will feature local trainings and free on-farm demonstrations.

Before the fertilizer blends can be introduced to farmers on a wide-scale, however, the blending facilities still need to be built. The foundation has been laid, and the parts and machinery for the first facility are already on their way to Ethiopia. The first in-country blending facility will be run by a cooperative union in Becho-Woliso, located about 100 kilometers south-west of Addis Ababa in the Oromia region. Over the next year, the ATA plans to set up four additional facilities, which will be operated by cooperative unions in Tigray, Amhara, and SNNPR. It is hoped that all of the facilities will be operational in time to produce fertilizer blends for the 2015 meher planting season.

IFPRI has been working with the ATA on Ethiopia’s soil issues for years

In 2009, IFPRI’s soil diagnostic study, commissioned by the Gates Foundation at the request of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, confirmed that Ethiopia’s soils are greatly degraded and in need of immediate soil health and fertility management. IFPRI’s report laid the foundation for the EthioSIS project, with researchers recommending a national soil information structure along with tailored soil fertility management across the country, based on local soil needs and types.

This year, IFPRI, along with the EIAR and a team of soil scientists from Cornel University, will evaluate the ATA’s blended fertilizer project. Researchers will study a set of 1,000 model farmers to measure levels of adoption and to identify factors that constrain farmers from adopting the ATA’s fertilizer recommendations. The team will also look at the Value Cost Ratio (VCR) of fertilizer use in different areas of the country. This information will help the ATA and the MoA target fertilizer distribution or set up blending facilities in areas where fertilizer use is most profitable and will reduce transportation costs.

According to Gameda, the next step in EthioSIS is to have Ethiopia’s research system carry out fertilizer response studies that will provide a third layer of information for the soil maps. It’s a very complex process, as Gameda points out. “In some areas, even where there is not an apparent Potassium deficiency, adding additional Potassium produces a bump in yields for cereals. So the research system will study these situations more closely and study the response rates for crops and soil types in the woredas.”

For policy makers, the new soil maps will have useful application beyond soil fertility management; it will help inform food security issues, land policy decisions, soil conservation policies, and the impact of climate change on land, along with providing information needed to better manage water resources. For farmers, the long-term vision is that they will be able to use their cell phones to login to servers that will capture their GPS coordinates and immediately show the soil composition of their land. “This is still conceptual,” says Gameda. But it’s a perfect example of how the marriage of agriculture and technology can help farmers better manage their land and, in the end, harvest bigger crops.

 

This article appeared in the first edition of the REAP quarterly newsletter. Download the PDF here.

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Fertilizer and soil fertility potential in Ethiopia

To learn more about the complex process of creating a digital soil map, watch the following short videos created by the Africa Soil Information Service.