Getting Our Hands Dirty: Social Innovators Show How Healthy Soil Makes Healthy People

Howard Buffett’s recent book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, shares two interrelated insights: that a farmer gets to produce around 40 annual harvests in her lifetime, and that living soils play an absolutely essential role in her and future generations’ abilities increase that harvest each year.

Will a small farmer in Africa actually live to experience all 40 chances? Mr. Buffett points to a very inconvenient truth, which we see reflected clearly in the work of leading social entrepreneurs: only if she is a “soil-maker.” That is, only if she recognizes and stewards the nutritional qualities and related organic fabric of the soils in which she grows her crops.

Otherwise, a myriad of factors degrade her ability to farm successfully over time: yields decrease (in terms of their bulk, calories, and most importantly, their ability to actually nourish the people who eat them); dependence on external fertilizers and other inputs increases, a reality made more dire by the lack of social and economic systems to provide them effectively; soil erosion increases; and resilience of the local land, economy, and thus people to extreme weather risks decreases because of all these factors.

Furthermore, Sub-Saharan Africa’s population, and thus its nutritional demand, is estimated to triple in the next thirty-five years. In contrast, as Howard Buffett points out, “It takes five hundred years or more for an inch of soil to form when bedrock crumbles and earthworms and microorganisms refine it into black loam and bring it to the surface.”

Fortunately, creative social entrepreneurs who recognize the potential “nutrient value chain” running through soils to people are seeding a creative, powerful new generation of enterprises addressing these issues. For example:

  • Sylvia Banda (Sylva Food Solutions) creates the demand for highly nutritious foods in Zambia’s largest urban markets, and in parallel she fosters the supply of those foods from thousands of local farmers. She promotes the preparation and consumption of those foods and their health benefits by appealing to local culture and economics via television, radio, high profile “cook-offs” with well-known restaurateurs and national politicians, and more. At the same time, she develops wide scale incentives for farmers (including supply chain contracts and technical assistance) to cultivate those healthful crops, driving demand for smart soil management using local inputs and unconventional approaches in the process.
  • Mwalimu Musheshe (African Rural University) has for twenty years recruited talented women in rural Uganda to be trained as farmer-researchers embedded in their own communities, and has at the same time networked them via creative educational systems and local government throughout the country. As those communities grapple with challenges, such as changes in rainfall due to shifting weather patterns or business or government programs proposing competitive land uses, these people provide evidence-based solutions to help their communities make wise decisions about cultivating foods that will nourish them, and the soils in which those foods are grown sustainably and for the long term.
  • Jason Aramburu (re:char) is enabling thousands of farmers in East Africa to create their own biochar soil additives that extend the life of whatever natural or chemical fertilizers are used, and add the essential organic fabric to the soils at the same time. Spread via a village-scale production technology and franchise business model, this enables successful farming without purchasing additional land or fertilizer. Where it has been applied, this biochar approach has increased farmer income 30% on average. (Furthermore, scientists have estimated that, if fully scaled, biochar technology could offset as much as 12% of the world’s annual C02 emissions by enriching soils and substituting farm waste for the harmful effects of cutting down an equivalent number of trees.)

Bill Carter, who directs Ashoka’s Africa operations, sees this convergence as a great opportunity for both people and the planet, because soil is the nexus between human health and ecological health, and the world’s leading social entrepreneurs are putting that force into play. Sylvia, Mwalimu and Jason are great examples, and others like them are starting ventures throughout Africa and around the world.

They are insisting on foods rich in actual nutrition (not just in bulk, calories, or raw ingredients) as essential for meeting the needs of a growing world population, and they’re leveraging the power of women-led farm families who understand this point better than anyone else on Earth. In doing so, they’re putting into play farming practices at wide scale that supply nutritional foods, enrich soils and thus surrounding ecosystems, and ultimately foster communities that are both nourished and nourishing.

Mr. Buffet’s focus, including his current 40 Chances Fellowship program for Africa, offers a great opportunity for innovators with new ideas in this realm to kickstart or spread their systems-changing initiatives.

The opportunity is ripe for connecting human and environmental vitality via soils.

Editor's Note: This post was written by David Strelneck, who has advised and helped lead initiatives with Ashoka Fellows in rural and environmental innovations worldwide over the past 10 years. It first appeared here on Ashoka's Forbes.com blog "Change in the Making." Follow Strelneck’s learning about soils and emerging Nutrient Value Chains on Twitter @Strelneck.