AFRILAB - Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN / / by Michael Watts and Lucrezia Caon

As part of the BGS Global platform Mike Watts and Lucrezia Caon visited Nairobi to promote the work of AFRILAB and the GLOSLAN network. In anticipation of the next meeting in October, they share their experience of the event... 

The AFRILAB welcome banner

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, as part of their Global Soil Partnership programme, have developed a global soil laboratories network (GLOSOLAN). Coordinated by Lucrezia Caon of FOA, GLOSOLAN promotes the harmonisation of soil laboratory standard operating procedures (SOPs) and large scale (national/international) datasets. Alongside GLOSOLAN as the global decision making body, regional networks were set up in 2018 for Latin America (LATSOLAN) and Asia (SEALNET).

In late May 2019, the African regional network - AFRILAB - was established in Nairobi, through a programme of information exchange of current capabilities, training in quality assurance and inter-laboratory proficiency testing. The initial grouping was of 39 experts from 20 African countries. The programme was led by Lucrezia Caon and Michael Watts (British Geological Survey) to implement the GLOSOLAN work plan for the year 2019 and to collect regional inputs for the next GLOSOLAN meeting (28-30 October 2019), where the work plan for the year 2020 will be defined.Participants discussed SOPs for sample pre-treatment, inorganic and total carbon, and finalized them for organic carbon by Walkley and Black, as initiated by LATSOLAN and SEALNET.

Day 1: National profiles

Each of the laboratory representatives provided an overview of laboratory capabilities. Lucrezia introduced participants to GLOSOLAN and to progress made across established networks in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, another regional network established in 2019 under the Australasian Soil and Plant Analysis Council (ASPAC). Group exercises were a successful part of the meeting, with vigorous discussions within break out groups to start exploring the needs and benefits of SOPs and quality assurance for laboratory methods and data outputs.

Lucia, introducing participants to GLOSOLAN

Day 2: SOPs 

A number of technical experts are leading initiatives for GLOSOLAN to develop harmonised SOPs across a range of techniques. Michael Watts delivered training on the importance of SOPs to provide reliable and reproducible laboratory data outputs. Michael and Charles Gowing (also from BGS) are leading international working groups on the development of SOPs for proficiency testing schemes and for sample pre-treatment to be rolled out as harmonised methods worldwide. Michael and Lucrezia led an initial breakout group session to design a framework for sample pre-treatment which captured pertinent points to account for a diversity of capabilities, resourcing and analytical requirements across the African region.

Follow-up sessions involved breakout groups reviewing the SOP harmonized by the LATSOLAN and SEALNET for organic carbon. The African group reviewed the document and provided invaluable revisions to improve the robustness and clarity of the organic carbon SOP, in particular highlighting health and safety requirements. This bodes well for the international network to advise and refine on the roll out of a number of harmonised SOPs via the GLOSOLAN programme over the next 6-7 years. Participants were also surveyed on the methods used for measuring other soil parameters, which will be brought to the attention of GLOSOLAN for identifying the SOPs to harmonize in 2020.

Delegates at the workshops

Day 3: Field Trip

On day three the delegates took a field trip to the Kenya Agriculture Laboratories Research Organisation (KALRO) and United Nations World Agroforestry Centre (WAC - formerly ICRAF) laboratories. Here examples of good laboratory practice were demonstrated with good and reliable resourcing at WAC. In addition, WAC provided presentations on the potential of geoscience to inform agricultural practices with the use of remote sensing data and the developing use of near infra-red (NIR) technology to provide rapid screening analyses of soils. These organisations provide training to undergraduate student placements and present an opportunity for regional training hubs.

Day 4: Proficiency Testing

Training exercises were given on good laboratory practice, quality assurance and how an organised laboratory that can evidence good practice can benefit laboratory operations, confidence in capability and efficiencies in data outputs. One of the objectives for GLOSOLAN is to deliver a regular inter-laboratory proficiency testing programme to soil laboratories worldwide through the distribution of characterised soil reference materials in order to harmonise capabilities. Therefore, training was provided on the theory, practice and need for proficiency testing. An example of a previous training exercise in Malawi, taking the form of an inter-laboratory exercise across four African countries, the UK, and 10 institutes through a lab network funded by RS-DFID was explained by colleagues from Malawi and Zimbabwe in attendance, along with the resulting lessons learnt.

The final session resulted in a vigorous break out discussion to formulate plans for improving laboratory systems, aimed at building resilience. Spokespeople from each group exchanged thoughts on how labs could be improved at low cost, and reviewing what works/does not work and how they are going to change practices, with target dates. A summary report is now available on the AFRILAB-Global Soil Partnership webpage.

The meeting was wrapped up with the distribution of soil samples to African partners to participate in the first GLOSOLAN worldwide inter-laboratory proficiency testing scheme for a range of analytical methods. In addition, the AFRILAB network was formally established with the election of a Chair in Joseph Uponi (Nigeria) and Vice Chairs Moustapha Abdourahaman (Niger) and Lesego Mooketsi-Selepe (Botswana).

The next GLOSOLAN meeting will take place on 28-30 October 2019.

Delegates presenting findings during GLOSOLAN

Further reading: 

Strengthening African Capacity in Soil Geochemistry to Inform Agriculture and Health Policies


Attendees from national reference laboratories were financially supported by the Global Soil Partnership, while other participants were supported by the Royal Society-DFID   funded project managed by the University of Nottingham and BGS, with partners in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Thanks to BGS Global for funding BGS staff to support GLOSOLAN activities.