South African Farm
Farm workers are seen at a farm in Eikeihof, outside Johannesburg, South Africa. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

Researchers from around the world have compiled an atlas on soil diversity on the African continent, which could help agricultural workers in one of the world’s most food-insecure regions make better, smarter use of the land beneath their feet.

The data was compiled by experts from the African Union, the EU’s European Commission, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The atlas’s main purpose is to make soil diversity research -- which has traditionally been a rather academic issue -- available to those who need it most.

Soil data can be used to further understanding about food production, flood risks, water security and the harvesting of wood for fuel and construction. The atlas could also help policy makers, farmers and aid workers make smart choices about where to invest in the production of various crops.

According to SciDev, the project was funded by a US$18 million grant from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Africa is an increasingly urban continent; more than a third of Africa’s 1 billion people are currently living in urban areas, and urbanization growth rates are around 5 percent -- higher than in any region on earth. With populations growing and less agricultural workers per capita than ever before, the importance of smart farming cannot be overestimated.

According to the World Bank, 45 percent of the rice and 85 percent of the wheat consumed in Africa are imported from outside the continent, partly due to trade barriers that stifle exchange among African countries and partly due to deficiencies of production.

The continent’s chronic food insecurity, then, is due in large part to a neglect of available resources. More than half the world’s uncultivated arable land can be found in Africa, which has 600 hectares (2.3 million square miles) of it, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

Understanding soil is only a small part of addressing this issue. Other necessary measures include improving agricultural education practices, modernizing irrigation systems and prioritizing the preservation of arable land before foreign corporations buy it up for themselves.

The data now available in the soil atlas will be one of many steps toward optimizing food production on the continent. Researchers plan to expand their research by making it more interactive and easy to understand; they also plan to expand their study to include various regions all over the world.