Just a spoonful of fertiliser ...

A technique pioneered by African agricultural scientists has helped boost crop yields in exhausted and ancient soils.

About 25 000 farm families in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have significantly improved yields of sorghum, maize and millet by adding a “three-finger pinch’’ of fertiliser either when planting seeds or within three weeks of sowing.

Six grams of fertiliser revitalises degraded soil and empowers farmers in areas where fertiliser is often difficult to obtain or expensive, says Chad-born Ramadjita Tabo, assistant director for West and Central Africa for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat).

The “microdosing” technique arose through five years of work by soil scientist André Bationo in the nine-country Desert Margins Programme, together with researchers at the Institute of Agronomic Research and the Inputs Project of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, all in Niger.

The technique and type of fertiliser varies, depending on the soil and climate. For example, where the soil is hard farmers dig small holes and fill them with manure before the rains begin. When the rains begin they apply fertiliser and plant, providing an optimal moist environment for the crop and preventing the chemicals from running off into the soil.

Small quantities of high-phosphorus fertiliser tablets were distributed to farmers for pilot studies in Mali, with monitoring help from Sako Karamoko from the European Cooperative for Rural Development and Sandinan Bouba­car from Sasakawa Global 2000, a Japanese­funded agricultural research project.

Particular effort was put into ensuring that the research moved out of the journals and into the fields.
Jean-Baptiste Sibiry Taonda from the Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute in Burkina Faso was closely involved in discussing the research findings and technology with farmers, relying on the help of agricultural extension officers.

Icrisat and its partners are also trying to persuade fertiliser companies to sell smaller packs of fertiliser in villages.

Plans are being made to use fertiliser tablets and scale up mechanical seeding technology, to make the technique less labour intensive—the fastest method uses two people, one to make the hole and the other to plant the seeds and apply the fertiliser.

‘‘We would like to scale up to reach up to half a million farmers in West, East and Southern Africa,’’ Tabo told SciDev.Net.

Long-term microdosing field trials are now being conducted in Niger on groundnuts and cowpeas (otherwise known as peanuts and blackeyed peas) as well as okra, tomato and other vegetables.

Progress was discussed in Ghana this month and is on the menu of the Second International Forum on Water and Food in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November.

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