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Africa works towards fertilizer optimisation…

New partnership of 13 sub-Saharan countries, facilitated by ASHC and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explores fertlizer optimisation 

On 20 July 2013 AGRA confirmed $5.65m funding for a project that will be know as Optimizing Fertilizer Recommendations in Africa (OFRA).

ASHC will be responsible for communications and CABI will be the contract holder for the OFRA project. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will lead on the research aspects of the program.

In addition the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invited ASHC to apply for a further four years funding. If successful, this will see ASHC working through to 2018. OFRA will facilitate formal and informal collaboration with key initiatives in Africa funded by AGRA, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

AGRA’s investment in this new project significantly increases the breadth and reach of the ASHC project. The investment also sees the focus moving from four priority countries to 13: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

By 2016, fertilizer optimization recommendations will cover the priority cereal-legume cropping systems in these countries. The cereal crops will consist of maize, sorghum, pearl and finger millet, wheat, teff and rice. The legumes covered will include beans, groundnuts, soybean, pigeonpea, chickpea and cowpea.

Taking maize as an example, most smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa experience yields of less than 1 tonne per hectare. However, under optimal conditions, yields of over 8 tonnes per hectare are possible .

In Africa, crop yields can often be increased two- to three-fold with very modest levels of fertilizer. This gives smallholders a high net financial return. Optimizing Fertilizer Recommendations in Africa will involve the production of tools and information to allow smallholders to maximize these returns, taking into account the cropping system and other soil management practices.

In sub-Saharan Africa, fertilizer use is very low. It has been estimated that in Africa the average application is around 8 kilograms per hectare per year compared to around 300 kilograms per hectare in the European Union.

OFRA will work with the national agriculture research and extension systems (NARES) to develop better recommendations for efficient and profitable fertilizer use by smallholder farmers in 13 sub-Saharan countries. These recommendations will be within the framework of integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) practices.

George Oduor, ASHC project manager explains: “Central to this project has been the development, with our partners in the national agriculture research and extension systems , of tailored, country-specific work packages, designed to fill gaps in knowledge relating to nutrient responses in cereal-legume cropping systems.

We are very fortunate to be developing this project in partnership with Professor Charles Wortmann and the team at Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They will be sharing their expertise in supporting the research for shaping of the fertilizer recommendations and development of fertilizer use optimisation tools for use on smartphones and other IT devices.

Most of the governments in sub-Saharan Africa produce a single, blanket crop specific recommendation for fertilizer use. However, these recommendations do not relate to ISFM techniques that can improve the efficiency of fertilizer use and help improve long-term soil health. Existing recommendations have generally been developed with the intent of maximizing yield, rather than considering the profit accruing to the smallholder. We need to have a more balanced approach that helps smallholders make their own decisions to maximize returns on investment.”

Rebbie Harawa from the AGRA Soil Health Program said: “This is an exceptional group of partners whose specialties and experience dovetail well.

It’s too early to predict exactly what will be achieved. I think it’s likely that they will be pushing for different sorts of fertilizer inputs that can respond specifically to the needs of the soil and the food security and economic aspirations of the farmer.

There may also be suggestions for African governments how, in the medium term, they may be able to target farm input subsidies in a smarter way. AGRA is very keen to help bring policy advocacy messages in front of key decision-makers across Africa. So we will be watching the OFRA project with particular interest.”

In addition to the University of Nebraska Lincoln and national agricultural research systems in 13 sub-Saharan countries, the partnership will be strengthened by links with partners and especially with two initiatives.

The Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) has considerable expertise in mapping the soils of sub-Saharan Africa and this information will both be exploited and enhanced through their involvement. OFRA will work with AfSIS to explore how maps and trial data can be integrated to add value and lead to improved recommendations. A science team leader will be appointed using OFRA and AfSIS funds to deliver this work program.
Grameen Foundation works with community knowledge workers. These are locally-based trusted intermediaries with access to information via smartphones, which Grameen develops, to help them provide agronomic information to farmers. They have already received funds to work with OFRA to develop and pilot a mobile application of the Fertilizer Optimization Tool.

The new AGRA-funded Country-level Soil Health Consortiums – currently in 8 countries in East and Southern Africa with the support of IPNI – are also seen as a critical partner in collecting and disseminating information. As the West Africa consortiums come on-stream they will become part of the OFRA project.

George Oduor summed up: “At the end of the OFRA process we will have new research data from different countries and different agro-ecological zones that can be used to improve the way that fertilizer recommendations are made. These will be turned into different tools to help share this information to change the way smallholders apply fertilizer.

We don’t need to wait for this data to set about improving and augmenting the current fertilizer recommendations with more ISFM input and create more targeted and farmer friendly recommendations. As a first step the OFRA project will be developing a guide to fertilizer use, drawing on the existing data and information, to give what we are calling ‘starting point’ recommendations.

This is a pragmatic approach that shows the can-do attitude of this partnership.”

A full list of partners and collaborators will be listed on the ASHC website.

In brief the project will:

Improve fertilizer recommendations as part of ISFM
The development of fertilizer recommendation tools within an ISFM framework with local stakeholders for each major agro-ecological zone

Work in partnership with the national research systems
The 13 national agriculture research and extension systems (NARES) will lead activities in their own countries, compiling data from existing research and implementing more field research. Collaborative working between the NARES will ensure they are able to share and make best use of data from similar soil and climate conditions from other countries. OFRA will seek to build capacity to use different tools to improve recommendations. The NARES will play a crucial part in working with national stakeholders through the country-level consortiums to develop a framework in which fertilizer recommendations can be shared.

Collaborate with AfSIS through a jointly funded position to exploit and enhance the soil maps of sub-Saharan Africa
AfSIS soil maps and databases will be used in selection of sites for OFRA field research to ensure appropriate data collection for extrapolation of results across similar agro-ecological zones and with similar soil characteristics.

Improve the use of research data to support fertilizer recommendations
Existing data on fertilizer responses will be supplemented with new data from on-station and on-farm nutrient-response trials (using standard protocols). This will cover the most significant cereal-legume systems in major agro-ecological zones across the 13 countries.

The data will be used to generate fertilizer response curves appropriate for local agro-ecological conditions. These will underpin the agronomic and economic conditions in determining how a farmer should use available finance for fertilizer use for maximizing net returns on the investment.

Improve access to information and communication materials for extension
Drawing on the experience of ASHC and the other partners, a communication strategy will guide development of appropriate materials for different ISFM stakeholders – especially smallholder farmers and their providers of information, including agro-dealers and extension services.

User-friendly decision tools, specific to agro-ecological zones will be adapted to allow farmers and extension staff to determine crop-nutrient-rate combinations that maximize net returns on investment according to financial and agronomic constraints.

In partnership with the Grameen Foundation, a fertilizer optimisation tool will be developed as an application for mobile phone platforms. This app will be piloted in Uganda and government and non-government extension staff will be trained in its use. The application will then be adapted for other participating countries according to their cropping systems and crop response to applied nutrients.

A guide to starting point fertilizer recommendations and guides to optimization of fertilizer use will be published.

Local capacity to develop information and communication materials will be built in each country – where appropriate, in collaboration with the new AGRA-funded country-level soil health consortiums.

For further information on the proposed approach read: Maximizing net returns to financially constrained fertilizer use
AGRA Grant reference: 2013 SHP 003
Official project title: Enhancing national agriculture research capacities in developing and fine-tuning fertilizer recommendations within an integrated soil fertility management framework