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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hope for fertilizer response for African farmers

By Esther Nakkazi

Plants get their water and nutrients from the soil. Sometimes they obtain nutrients from fertilizers added to the soil. We get nutrients from plants. In Africa, however, there is limited knowledge on the type of soils, which soils respond to which fertilizer and what nutrients can be added to boost crop production for food security.

Soil field trials across Africa, however, to investigate the responsiveness or the lack of it, by her soils to fertilizers are going on by the Nairobi based World Agroforestry centre (ICRAF) in partnership with the Globally Integrated Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) project.

“We are hoping to get a fertilizer response for African farmers,” said Mercy Nyambura a researcher, at the soil-plant spectral diagnostics laboratory at ICRAF. “African farmers have been using fertilizers with no changes in crop yields, we hope this can encourage them to use more and the right fertilizers.”

Studies show that fertilizer use in Africa is by far the lowest in the world. On average, African farmers apply about 9 kg per hectare of fertilizer compared to 86 kg per hectare in Latin America and 142 kg per hectare in Southeast Asia.

African farmers also do not know the mineralogy and the micro nutrient value of the soils they are dealing with, so the commonly used ammonia, phosphorus, and organic fixing fertilizers have not been responsive to crop yields.

“We need to be better informed. Most of the fertilizers used are generalized. WE shall create fertilizer formulas and combinations that are specific for certain soils for Africa,” said Nyambura.

The information generated will benefit African farmers, extension workers, agricultural institutes, the private sector dealing in fertilizers and others to use and sell the most appropriate type of fertilizer or treatment for their specific soil type.

“This information will allow farmers to set realistic yield targets and inform them of the inputs required to achieve them,” said Dr Jeroen Huising, a senior scientist at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) who is leading this effort with other national research organizations.

ICRAF officials said this would boost Africa’s agricultural productivity and greatly increase the efficiency of resource use, ensuring that money is not lost on inappropriate fertilizer type.

So far, this is one of the focused, practical, evidence-based solutions that will deal with Africa’s food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and soil degradation. Africa’s agricultural yields and farm incomes have been stagnant for the last four decades according to research.

How it is being done:

The project is doing this by gathering soil samples from all over Africa. At least 16,000 soil samples will be examined and analyzed, with 320 different soils from the 54 countries across Africa.

The analysis will seek to come up with some common patterns in crop responses to fertilizer application and to degradation processes; to classify responsive soils — those showing a significant response to fertilizer applications — and those that only show a marginal response to fertilizer application.

Ultimately, an African soil profiles database will be available at ICRAF under the AfSIS project, with 14,000–20,000 profile records by the end of 2012. So far the Database has over 12,000 soil profile records for 37 countries, with some of this data collected over the years by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other organisations.

The soil data available by the end of this year at ICRAF will also be standardized, in digital form, up-to-date, more accurate with soils’ properties to provide knowledge about the condition and trend of African soils and their ability to support agriculture in Africa, said Elvis Weullow, a senior laboratory technician at ICRAF.

The AfSIS project is part of a wider, global initiative to digitally map the World’s soil resources, by a team of scientists at ISRIC - World Soil Information, which contributes to the project as part of the global digital soil map consortium – GlobalSoilMap.

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