Establishment of rhizobial inoculant production factories in Africa

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The possibilities for establishment of rhizobial inoculant production in Africa were discussed in detail at the N2Africa Steering Committee held in Kano and I include a short report on our discussions below. As evidence mounts for substantial responses to inoculation with soyabean in different countries, our attention turns towards sustainability of supply. A key question is: Why is sustainability of supply always equated with local production?

When we evaluate the various options for supply we need to consider a number of issues:

  1. Quality has to be the first consideration. This is normally tested as the number of viable rhizobium cells against the number of contaminants in the inoculant.
  2. The economics of inoculant use are paramount. Cost-benefit ratios are often very favourable for farmers, which gives producers some flexibility with the price, but of course we want to ensure that farmers are offered a quality product at a reasonable price.
  3. Shelf-life is particularly important in our target countries if inoculants are to be sold by local stockists.
  4. We need to work hard on ease of supply. Local production could have advantages over importation in terms of guaranteeing local supply. This depends on the ease of import into different countries.

Experiences with inoculant production in Africa

There have been a number of initiatives to establish local inoculant production in the past. In the 1980s and 1990s initiatives led by NifTAL, FAO and the MIRCENs led to establishment of small scale inoculant production in many countries throughout Africa but few developed production at a large scale.

Three facilities that have continued to produce rhizobial inoculants over a long period for a market are found in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe (see Milestone Report 3.4.1, on the website as report 13, by Abdullahi Bala et al.)

  1. The inoculant production facility at MEA was formed as a “spin-off” through grant from the British Council from the Nairobi MIRCEN at the University of Nairobi. MEA are producing and distributing inoculants and are keen to grow their market. N2Africa and our sister project SIMLESA have been working with MEA to improve the quality of their inoculants and Dr Anabel Marifisi from Australia provided training and advice.
  2. The government department of the Soil Productivity Research Laboratory at Grasslands Research Station in Marondera, Zimbabwe has produced inoculants since 1967. These are produced on a semi-commercial basis and funds are cycled back into the inoculant production. Much of the inoculant produced was sold to large-scale farmers, but assistance from N2Africa is helping to increase the number of small-scale farmers using inoculants. In COMPRO tests the Zimbabwean inoculants were selected as one of the best products in both glasshouse and field evaluations, when tested against a range of commercial imported inoculants.
  3. In Zambia inoculant production was established with support from NifTAL at the agricultural research station at Mt Makulu. When this ceased, the Balmoral Veterinary Services, a government institute who produce animal vaccines, has produced inoculants to meet the demands (largely) of the commercial farmers in Zambia.
  4. In South Africa, a private company, Soygro, produces a wide range of biological products, including rhizobial inoculants.

Thus different models have led to sustained production over a long period of time. Both have some degree of commercialization, either a semi-commercial government operation, or a combination of government/private sector involvement. If we explore why relatively few of the initiatives to establish inoculant production continued to the present, the three cases in southern Africa perhaps cast light on the reasons behind this trend. In all three countries - South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – the major market for inoculants has been the large-scale, commercial farming sector. From a base of a guaranteed market the companies have been able to increase supply to the smallholder sector.

Quality control of inoculants

The N2Africa Steering Committee has charged the project to establish effective inoculant quality control (QC) systems in all of the countries where we work. This is going ahead and systems are in place in several of the countries already. Where we have been unsuccessful in establishing QC, this has largely been due to the lack of human, technical capacity which demonstrates the importance of our ongoing training programme. Initial results show variable quality in the inoculants produced by some suppliers, which is a cause of concern that is being actively addressed. We need still to establish if the variable quality has been at source or at other stages through the supply chain in storage, transport and delivery.

Inoculation with soyabeans

N2Africa is forging ahead with inoculation on soyabeans. In East Africa these have been supplied by MEA and Resagbio, Spain. In Zimbabwe we have used the locally produced SPRL inoculants. In West Africa we have imported inoculants from Legumefix, UK. In all regions we have seen strong responses to inoculation, though the results have been variable across seasons and locations in East and Central Africa and southern Africa. The problem is that in these cases we do not know if the problem has been due to variability in batch quality of the inoculants, or due to the presence of effective background rhizobial populations. A question remains: If we had consistent highest quality inoculants would we be observing even larger and more consistent yield increases from inoculants?

Inoculation with Phaseolus beans, cowpea, groundnut etc.

Trials to date with inoculation on Phaseolus in Kenya have generally demonstrated no response to inoculation. In a few cases, marginal increases in yield have been observed with inoculation. This is in line with a large body of research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s that demonstrated similar results. At present we cannot be sure whether the lack of responses to inoculation are due to either: a) inoculants delivering insufficient rhizobia; b) the inoculant strain not being the best possible; c) that beans do not need to be inoculated as the indigenous rhizobia populations are sufficiently effective.

Our current strategy is to suspend dissemination work on inoculation in beans until we have been able to conduct field campaigns with the best quality inoculants and have sufficient evidence that inoculation is a sensible strategy with beans. We are actively pursuing this topic through research in the next cropping season in East Africa.

With regard to inoculation for cowpea and groundnut, there are sporadic reports of inoculation responses with cowpea, and less evidence of inoculation responses with groundnut. This is a further area urgently needing research. Again we will only start to promote inoculants with these crops once further research has been done and when we can ensure the highest quality of inoculants (both strains and formulations).

Current proposals to establish inoculant production facilities

When is it justified to establish inoculant facilities in a country? N2Africa is striving to ensure that QC facilities are established all countries, and a good microbiologist can produce small quantities of inoculant for research with such facilities. We are supporting an initiative to establish inoculant production facilities in Nigeria where soyabean is produced by millions of smallholder farmers, and where we are confident of a large and growing market. A first stage in this initiative is to develop a business plan and this is underway together with a private sector partner.

N2Africa does not consider that it would be a sensible move at present to establish inoculant production in all of the countries where we work. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  1. The current market volume is too small to make an inoculant production plant a viable economic enterprise.
  2. The skills base in terms of both scientist and technicians trained in rhizobiology for inoculant production and quality control is too weak.
  3. Initial research is be needed to test, select and refine carriers and develop appropriate formulations.
  4. In both West and southern Africa there is only one season a year. This means that if inoculants have a shelf-life of only six months, the factory would need to pay staff for half of the year to maintain their expertise, while not being productive, unless they can use the facilities to make other products.

There is danger in moving ahead with establishing new inoculation production facilities in different countries before we have demonstrated sufficiently large demand from farmers to warrant it. The last thing we want is for new companies to market inferior quality inoculants. If we promote inferior products that do not work consistently then we will rapidly lose the confidence of the farmers, and may compromise inoculant use in the long-term.

The N2Africa proposed strategy

Given the above discussion we suggest it is sensible to import high quality inoculants, and focus on ensuring an effective supply chain for inoculants in the areas where N2Africa is working until we know that there is sufficient demand to warrant establishment of local production.

We will continue to support all countries to establish robust quality control procedures as we have been doing already. N2Africa will also support MEA and the SPRL inoculant production facility in Zimbabwe to improve and guarantee that consistent quality inoculants are delivered to farmers.

This strategy was endorsed by the N2Africa Steering Committee. We would be pleased to hear your thoughts and advice on this important issue.

Ken Giller