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Fertilizer Optimisation Tool takes step forward in East Africa

The development of customized, country specific fertilizer optimisation tools moved a step closer last week as a result of the OFRA workshop in Arusha, Tanzania. The workshop brought together experts from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania specially to look at how tools could be developed that share information across similar agro-ecological zones.

Harrison Rware, the monitoring and evaluation specialist at OFRA, explains: “Working prototypes of the FOT were developed specifically for 12 agro-ecological zones [two each for Kenya (Western and Nyanza), Tanzania (Eastern and Northern), Rwanda (Eastern and Northwest), and 6 for Uganda]. These will be further refined as more of the trial data becomes available.

However, each country is at a different state of development in terms of fertilizer optimisation tools that can support farmers. The meeting last week in Tanzania helped us crystalize plans and move the project forwards.

In Uganda the tool is already customized to support 6 crops in 6 different agro-ecological zones. This means that the tool is now ready to be used in all of the major crop production areas. Currently work is being undertaken to make wheat, Irish potato and finger millet fertilizer recommendations available as a result of the new OFRA trials and the processing of the legacy data. 

The OFRA teams in Kenya and Tanzania are ready to organize in-country workshops to develop the fertilizer optimization tool based on the research data they have generated. Rwanda is still at the data collecting stage, in relation to beans. maize and wheat. However recent AGRA-funded work has provided fertilizer response information on rice, Irish potato, soybean and banana.  This will ensure the tool is effective in the major crop growing areas in the north, south and east of Rwanda.

Work on tools in the all participating countries is currently being planned and timetabled.”

Martin Macharia, the OFRA data manager, says: “Through a combination of fertilizer response trials and the collection of legacy data, OFRA has built up a strong database, which is informing the development of the tool across countries”.

The OFRA team is now reviewing how to build awareness of the fertilizer optimization tool in the four countries. Over the next few weeks the benefits of the tool will be built into information materials to raise awareness of the tool. The first target will be potential intermediaries and partners, such as managers of extension services or agro-dealers. The second phase will encourage uptake of the tool by smallholder farmers.

“There are several issues to communicate with the fertilizer optimization tool,” explains George Oduor, the project leader for OFRA. “First we are to offer farmers access to a tool that will help them to make real decisions at a farm level. It has a very different approach to making fertilizer recommendations. In the past farmers have usually been given a blanket, country-wide fertilizer recommendation based on maximizing production. OFRA takes a different starting point. It assumes farms are rational business and therefore the only financially sustainable position is for fertilizer to be used to maximize profits. The long-term sustainable position has to ensure that enough nutrients are going back into the soil to stop long-term and perhaps an irreversible decline in soil fertility. The fertilizer optimisation tool supports this approach by telling farmers where and how to place the small amount of fertilizer they can afford in order to maximize their financial returns – based on the farmers own assumptions of the market for their crops.”

The other significant difference in the fertilizer optimization approach is that it is not just looking at investment in fertilizer. Over the past few years a growing body of research and been exploring the relationship between fertilizer and soil health – especially in relation to the impact of organic measures. The integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) approach promotes better seed and planting material, intercropping with legumes and the application of compost, crop residues or manure into the soil along side fertilizer application. When these elements are combined into a package of ISFM approaches they work in harmony to massively increase crop yields. The fertilizer optimisation tool is being designed to bring all of this information to the farmgate.

George Oduor said: “We believe the fertilizer optimisation tool can really help farmers make better decisions, especially growing the most profitable of a wide choice of crops and deciding how and where to add limited resources such as fertilizer.

Good communication of the benefits will be critical to successful roll-out of the fertilizer optimisation tool.

We need to find intermediaries to help deliver these benefits at scale in the OFRA participating countries. Ideally intermediaries will have access to smartphones or computers that can do the calculations. This will also require us to talk to some policy makers about how the fertilizer optimization approach could be incorporated into their plans. However, this will not always be possible so a series of look up tables are also being developed as a decision support tool to provide a paper-based alternative to the computer applications. ”

The partners in East Africa are now looking for opportunities to promote and further adapt the fertilizer optimisation tool to different crops and agro-ecological zones

Harrison has the last word: “We are really keen to hear from anyone planning events over the next 12 months where we can share the benefits of the fertilizer optimisation approach.”

Harrison can be reached by email: