EU Science Hub

First Soil Atlas of Africa puts spotlight on Africa's life source

Apr 26 2013

A 'hot off the press' copy of the Soil Atlas of Africa, coordinated by the JRC, was presented today by European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard at the meeting between the European Commission and the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa. For the first time ever, this atlas collects vital information on African soils and highlights the importance of this non-renewable resource.  With its stunning full colour maps and illustrations, it explains in a comprehensible and visually appealing way the diversity of soil across the African continent and explains why it is so important to preserve this precious resource.

Healthy and fertile soils are the cornerstones of food security, key environmental services, social cohesion and the economies of most African countries. Up to 98% of all calories consumed in Africa originate from the soil resources of the continent. Unfortunately, soil in Africa tends to reach public awareness only when it fails to feed the people living from it.

The aim of the atlas is to raise awareness at all levels – from politicians to the general public - of the significance of soil to life in Africa. Coordinated by the European Commission's in-house science service, in collaboration with the African Union and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it compiles the contributions of dozens of soil experts from Africa and Europe. It is a much-needed source of information for policy makers and researchers and will be the basis for a pan-African assessment on the state of soil resources to be launched at the conference of the African Soil Science Society in Kenya in October.

The Atlas explains the origin and functions of soil, describes the different soil types and their relevance to both local and global issues. It also discusses the principal threats to soil and the steps being taken to protect soil resources.

Some key facts about African soil presented in the Atlas:

  • Organic matter in the soil can store more than ten times its weight of water, which reduces risk of floods and protects underground water supplies.
  • Africa's soils store about 200 gigatonnes of organic carbon - 2.5 times more than contained in the continent's plants.
  • Tropical rainforest soils are not naturally fertile but need a constant supply of organic matter from natural vegetation. Deforestation breaks this cycle.
  • Over half of Africa's land surface is characterised by sandy soils (22%), shallow stony soils (17%) and young, weakly developed soils (11%).
  • Many of the soils of Africa are severely degraded by erosion and excessive nutrient depletion. This explains the low productivity of African soils, mainly due to lack of plant nutrients, not adequately replenished by artificial fertilizers. On average, African farmers, due to rural poverty, are able to apply only 10% of the nutrients that farmers in the rest of the world return to the soil.