Micro-doses bring MEGA-results

Women in Burkina Faso applying fertilizer by microdose at planting.

Women in Burkina Faso applying fertilizer by microdose at planting.

Chemical fertilizers are a critical input for African farmers, many of whom are struggling with impoverished soils and low yields. However, overapplication can mean a waste of already limited funds and an unnecessary impact on the environment.

The President of the International Fund for Agricultural Develoment (IFAD) Dr. Kanayo Nwanze, speaking at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week opening ceremony in Accra, Ghana, said “We have seen good results from a fertilizer micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners, using a bottle cap system so farmers can measure out small, affordable amounts of fertilizer.”

Exploring the theme of the week, he illustrated how appropriate technologies and innovations can ensure that the benefits of agricultural research for development reach the end users — in this case, the farmers.

“[These technologies] can boost productivity, improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature stress and pests, and make nutrient use more efficient,” he declared.

However, as a development practioner with more than 3 decades of experience working in Africa, Dr. Nwanze knows the place of technologies and innovations in agricultural development. He said, “I have seen the miracles that take place when we give farmers the tools to enhance existing technologies.”

Fertilizer microdosing

Dr.  Nwanze believes that there is huge potential to increase yields using low cost and existing technologies. Such technologies include simply optimizing conventional approaches, as in the use of fertilizers and micro-irrigation, or using trees to improve soil fertility and moisture content.

These ideas are not necessarily new, but they yield dramatic results. Dr. Nwanze highlighted ICRISAT’s fertilizer microdosing program, which has tremendously impacted millions of smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa with dramatic improvements in yields.

Microdosing involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer directly where the plant needs it — at the roots. Farmers apply 6 gram doses of fertilizer—about a full bottle cap or a three-finger pinch — in the hole where the seed is placed at the time of planting.

Farmers in ICRISAT’s project countries have developed different techniques for fertilizer application depending on the materials available. While farmers in southern Africa use fertilizer measured out in an empty soft drink or beer bottle cap, in western Africa the farmers measure fertilizer with a three-finger pinch and apply it in the same hole in which seed is sown.

Where soil is hard, farmers dig small seed holes before the rain starts and fill them with manure. Once the rains actually start, the water is captured in the holes instead of running off the hard-crusted soil. The fertilizers and the moist environment encourage  root growth and improve the germination rate of the seed. Stronger root systems capture more water in the soil, increase crop yields, and reduce the plants’ susceptibility to drought.

The fertilizer microdosing technology is combined with a warranty system where farmers place part of their harvest in a local storehouse in return for inventory credit. The credit allows them to meet pressing post-harvest expenses and engage in dry season income generation through activities such as sheep fattening, vegetable growing using small scale irrigation, and groundnut oil extraction, among other things. The stored grain may then be sold later in the year at much higher prices, making a better profit for the farmers.

Blogpost by Agathe Diama, a social media reporter for AASW6.

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