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Soil degradation poses a major challenge to agricultural systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas there is a wealth of knowledge on the consequences of degraded soils, the evidence base for farm management practices that could prevent and mitigate soil degradation is still emerging and farmer uptake of such practices remains mostly low. We propose that low adoption rates are due, in part, to a lack of near-term, farm-level incentives, specifically immediate financial benefits accruing to farmers who implement sustainable management practices associated with enhanced soil health. To encourage adoption of soil-enhancing production practices by African smallholder farmers, a focus on farm-level return on investment (ROI) is essential. To be effective at scale, soil health initiatives must be built on realistic predictions of context-specific benefits, adoption barriers, and farm-level financial incentives. In this paper, we postulate that monetizable benefits of soil-enhancing practices accrue from increased agricultural production, reduced cost of production, greater resilience and environmental benefits. We review value chain, policy, and finance strategies that can shift the structural incentives that powerfully influence farm-level ROI and smallholder adoption of soil-enhancing practices. We conclude that agricultural development initiatives should integrate evidence-based estimation of soil-related biophysical changes and thorough analysis of monetizable benefits of promoted interventions, both on-farm and off-farm. This should be built on robust regional datasets and models, developed over several consecutive seasons and considering local specificities.