Wageningen University has launched a new initiative to improve food production and soil fertility in Africa through expanding the production of legume crops and thus increasing inputs from biological nitrogen fixation. Supported by a four-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project brings together a strong consortium of research and development partners across Africa and aims to benefit more than 200,000 small farming households in eight countries—Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.
Beans and other grain legumes such as peanuts, cowpea and soyabean capture nitrogen from the air with bacteria that form nodules on their roots. The bacteria receive sugars from the legume plant and use the energy gained to ‘fix’ nitrogen gas into a form that can be used by the plants to grow. This means that the legumes do not rely on nitrogen from the soil. In Africa legume crops often fail to fix useful amounts of nitrogen because their partner bacteria are not present in the soil or because the soil lacks other nutrients such as phosphorus. Using simple scientific technology farmers can introduce the bacteria as inoculants, together with the seed and small amounts of other nutrients as fertilizer. This simple package gives more than double the yields of farmers in many cases, and helps to improve the soil.
“African farmers scratch a living by producing crops on soils exhausted of nitrogen, while dinitrogen is the most abundant gas in the air all around them. Legume crops use this nitrogen gas to provide nutritious food for small farmers, open market opportunities for farmers, and at the same time improve soil fertility. We don’t claim that biological nitrogen fixation can substitute all of the farmers’ fertilizer needs, but it can give a real productivity boost” said Ken Giller, project leader, who has collaborated with African researchers on biological nitrogen fixation for more than 20 years, “This programme builds on a number of success stories in which an international network of researchers, extension and NGOs have developed appropriate technologies to enhance the yields of African farmers."
Dr. Nteranya Sanginga, Director of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute, Nairobi said “The technologies we will deploy have been used for decades by farmers in the North America and Brazil. African farmers have been denied access to these methods for far too long, but our project will develop capacity to produce inoculants in Africa together with private partners. We will help to build local capacity on biological nitrogen fixation in Africa and draw on expertise from organizations such as the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) who are leaders in this field, and from other leading scientists from Europe, the USA and Australia.”
In conjunction with Bill Gates’ keynote address today at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will announce this grant, along with a package of nine agricultural development projects totalling $120 million to address long-term food security.
“Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” Gates said.
This grant to Wageningen University is part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Agricultural Development initiative, which is working with a wide range of partners to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their yields, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families. The foundation is working to strengthen the entire agricultural value chain-from seeds and soil to farm management and market access-so that progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable over the long term.