Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



Environ. Res. Lett. 12 (2017) 114036.


© 2017 The Author(s).


There is a persistent narrative about the potential of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to be a ‘grain breadbasket’ because of large gaps between current low yields and yield potential with good management, and vast land resources with adequate rainfall. However, rigorous evaluation of the extent to which soils can support high, stable yields has been limited by lack of data on rootable soil depth of sufficient quality and spatial resolution. Here we use location-specific climate data, a robust spatial upscaling approach, and crop simulation to assess sensitivity of rainfed maize yields to root-zone water holding capacity. We find that SSA could produce a modest maize surplus but only if rootable soil depths are comparable to that of other major breadbaskets, such as the US Corn Belt and South American Pampas, which is unlikely based on currently available information. Otherwise, producing surplus grain for export will depend on expansion of crop area with the challenge of directing this expansion to regions where soil depth and rainfall are supportive of high and consistent yields, and where negative impacts on biodiversity are minimal.