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Fertilizer approach could empower 50m African families

14 June 2017: Four years of dedicated work by scientists in 13 African countries has resulted in the creation of innovative tools to help farmers maximise their profits from investments in fertilizers. The Fertilizer Optimization Tools (FOTs) were created as part of the Optimizing Fertilizer Recommendations for Africa (OFRA) project, funded by AGRA, and coordinated by CABI and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

George Oduor, deputy director of research at CABI, explains: “There are over 50 million families living in the rural areas of the 13 countries where we have been exploring how to optimize fertilizer investment based on profit maximization. With the right delivery partnerships in place, all these families can benefit from this work and achieve greater food security and improved livelihoods. This will contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 especially Sustainable Development Goal number 2.

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George Oduor

The yield gap between what smallholder farmers in Africa produce and the potential crop yield is of great concern. This is partly due to inadequate soil fertility. If extension services and agro-dealers used the optimisation approach in advising farmers on fertilizer use, farmer profitability as well as productivity is expected to greatly increase. As farmers’ financial ability is improved, they are expected to increase input use and further increase productivity.

Rebbie Harawa, head of soil fertility and fertilizer systems at AGRA, says: “We were pleased to invest in the Optimising Fertilizer Recommendations for Africa (OFRA) project because it was a genuine attempt to work across the 13 countries and create a new paradigm for fertilizer recommendations. This is a big move away from blanket recommendations for fertilizer, to recommendation based on the nutrient needs of crops and the underlying conditions in 67 different agro-ecological zones. It treats farms as rational economic businesses and supports them to make the best of their investment in fertilizer, even when they are very resource-constrained.”

AGRA's Rebbie Harawa copy

Rebbie Harawa from AGRA

The scale of the OFRA project has been substantial:

  • 13 cooperating countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda & Zambia
  • Data from 606 OFRA field trials has been made available in an on-line database
  • The researchers carried out research trials to test fertilizer responses for over 20 different crops
  • 5,275 crop response functions were developed from legacy [previous research] and OFRA trial data 
  • 10,162 legacy datasets on response of crops to fertilizers collated covering 37 crops or crop combinations 
  • Fertilizer use optimization book published with chapters from all the 13 countries – 750 copies have been printed
  • 2,836 extension workers empowered on how to use the FOTs to advise farmers

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The data collected to date covers all of the staple crops that small-scale farmers are likely to grow – with some 375 crop or cropping system specific fertilizer optimization recommendations across 67 different agro ecological zones of the 13 participating countries. Over 1,000 scientists in the participating research institutes and other collaborating organisations also learned how to amend the fertilizer optimisation tools to respond to new crop selections or changing factors like market prices.

There are currently 74 fertilizer optimization tools which run on computers. Paper-based look-up tables present a cut down version of the tools, but mean that the approach can be used anywhere and by farmers following an introduction.

George Oduor added: “We are now working on a mobile phone app version of the fertilizer optimization tool. This will be a game changer. Given the scope of the mobile phone network extension worker will be able to use the app in most parts of the participating countries. The app will also be adaptable so that fertilizers can be added in line with what is available locally.

We are proud to have facilitated the OFRA partnership. We have collectively shown the value of collaborative working to get these tools in place. Now we need to add to this partnership to ensure that we can bring together the investment to transform the lives of millions of Africans.”

The OFRA research and development close-out workshop takes place in Nairobi, Kenya on 15-16 June 2017 in Nairobi

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