The productivity of legumes―which are important crops for improving nutrition as a cheap source of protein, increasing farmers’ incomes, and improving soil fertility as they fix nitrogen from the air into the soils―can be easily increased and even doubled with application of improved technologies.

However, farmers are unable to access most of these technologies due to poorly developed supply chains, lack of access to credit, and inadequate policies.

These are the challenges that the second phase of the multi-partnership project, “Putting nitrogen fixation to work for smallholder farmers,” in short N2Africa, is addressing. The project‘s goal is to boost the production of legumes among smallholder farmers to improve their income and nutrition while at the same time enhancing soil fertility through promoting the use of these improved technologies.

During the first phase of the project, different technologies for boosting legume production were tested together with farmers in eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa and the most promising ones identified. The project also tested technologies for processing and adding value to grain legumes to create markets and increase demand. More than 250,000 farmers were involved in the evaluation and testing of these technologies.

The technologies include improved high-yielding varieties of four legumes: cowpea, groundnut, soybean and common bean, as well as inputs such as appropriate fertilizer mix and inoculants (bacteria that strengthen ability of legumes to fix nitrogen). Research has shown that combined with fertilizers they easily double yield.

The aim of the second phase of the project, which started in March 2014, is to find ways to sustainably disseminate these technologies even further, and to reach twice as many farmers in 11 countries. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project is led by a consortium comprised of: Wageningen University, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and is implemented through a wide range of partners.

“One of challenges of legume production is lack of well-developed seed systems. Farmers usually do not buy legume seeds, preferring instead to save some from their harvest. Therefore, private seed companies are not motivated to produce legume seeds. This also affects the dissemination of newly released legume varieties from researchers to farmers,” said Professor Ken Giller, the project leader from Wageningen University.

The project, according to Professor Giller, is therefore looking into ways to create effective seed supply systems through private-public sector partnerships. He was speaking at the project’s annual meeting which took place from 28 to 31 October 2014, in Arusha, Tanzania, to review the progress and challenges in the first year and to develop plans for the second year.

Another major challenge is the unavailability of rhizobium inoculants and lack of policy and regulations to control their quality: “While in all the project countries, we were able to demonstrate that using the right inoculants combined with fertilizers can double legume yield, very few of the countries have private or public companies producing and marketing these inoculants in sufficient quantities and quality. Furthermore, the countries also lack polices on quality standards of inoculants and therefore cannot control the quality of products coming into the market,” said Bernard Vanlauwe, IITA Director for Central Africa also speaking at the meeting. “The project is therefore working with governments to establish standards to regulate these products in the market.”

High market demand for legumes

In all the project countries, research showed there was a high demand for legumes, which farmers can tap into to improve their income and livelihoods. For example, in all the project countries, demand for soybean for processing livestock feed and healthy food products far outstripped supply. In Tanzania, according to Dr Freddy Baijukya, IITA-Tanzania agronomist and N2Africa Tanzania Country Coordinator, demand for soybean is estimated at 150,000 tons (t) for soy cake for animal feed and 50,000 t as grain for processing food products such as soy flour.

“Though the country has the potential to produce up to two million t to serve the local and regional market, current production is at 2500 t per year, according to statistics from FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization),” Dr Baijukya said.

However, to tap into these markets, smallholder farmers need to have the resources to invest in these technologies to be able to supply the legumes to these commercial processors consistently and sustainably in terms of quality and quantity. “Even if we come up with wonderful technologies, they will not make a difference if the farmers cannot afford them and have no access to credit as financial institutions consider them a high risk. This is also another area that N2Africa is looking into through private sector partnership,” said Dr Fred Kanampiu, the IITA N2Africa project coordinator.

“We have made a lot of progress in our first year in addressing constraints to production of legumes in the 11 countries we are working in. The Phase I countries such as DR Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe are now focusing on commercialization of these technologies and institutionalization of the project. The new project countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda are pre-testing the identified promising technologies to identify the most effective and appropriate one. There has been a lot of sharing of information and lessons learned across all the countries and the over a 164 project partners,” Dr Kanampiu added.

Overall phase two of the project seeks to reach more than 550,000 smallholder farmers with these improved technologies and to ensure they triple their investment by getting three dollars back for each dollar invested.

Source: IITA