“Black medicine” in West Africa

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A strong vote of thanks to all the partners who hosted our N2Africa team during late September/October when Ken Dashiell, Abdullahi Bala, Robert Abaidoo and I toured the field in northern Ghana and Nigeria. It was humbling to experience the importance attached to our visit by the farmer groups, NGO and government partners who were clearly not used to receiving guests. The enthusiastic interest of the farmers convinces me that we are in a prime position to make massive impact through our work in this region. In addition to their important role as grain for food, soyabean and cowpea are well-established as important cash crops in the farming systems. It was a pleasure to travel with Ken Dashiell who was responsible for development of many of the IITA soyabean varieties and to see that these varieties are now grown over hundreds of thousands of hectares in Nigeria and Ghana. When Ken Dashiell was in northern Ghana in the early 1990s, soyabean was virtually unknown. Now it is firmly established as an important smallholder crop.

Farmers are very responsive and keen to get hold of new legume varieties. They were often surprised to see the large growth responses to small applications of phosphorus fertilizer which were observed throughout the region. Responses to inoculation in soyabean were sometimes massive – more often about a 20% increase in biomass which is similar to what we have observed in East Africa. The low literacy level in rural areas of both Ghana and Nigeria provide challenges for learning and dissemination. In Ghana, farmers called the rhizobium inoculum “black medicine” – but were proud to dig up plants and explain that the inoculum led to formation of nodules that could capture nitrogen from the air. In some places farmers did not understand what inoculum was, and we need to give some careful attention to finding other means of communication.

In a small but significant proportion of the adaptive trials and demonstrations we saw poor growth in all plots irrespective of treatments, but sporadic plants that were growing well in small pockets of more fertile soil. These plots represent the ‘non-responsive soils’ that we have witnessed elsewhere in Africa that need urgent research attention in coming seasons to understand why crop growth is so poor. The key and complementary role of N2Africa is to develop packages of management (inoculum, fertilizer, agronomy) to accompany the new legume varieties that are available and in great demand by farmers. One lesson we learned – and that was reinforced by all farmer groups that we visited – is that we have to be better organised and arrive early with inputs and seed. This is particularly important for cowpea, where early sowing allows for two crops to be grown within the season.

With the rains just starting, our attention is now focused on getting fieldwork started in southern Africa, and we are well into the second season in East Africa – so all systems are ‘go’ across the three regions! More news on those activities in the next Podcaster!

Ken Giller