The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says crop losses in sub-Saharan Africa amount to $200 million a year. As a result scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are reminding farmers about how to improve soil and crop harvests, highlighting fertilization and crop rotation to increase the supply of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
IITA scientists and their partners working in Nigeria, Benin and Togo are reinforcing those findings after completing a six-year project called "Balanced Nutrient Management Systems" in which they identified better crop varieties and validated crop-rotation techniques. They also devised soil fertility technology and set up cooperative approaches with national researchers and extension organizations.
Dr. Robert Abaidoo, soil microbiologist at IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria, says the long-term soil studies advanced their understanding of how disadvantaged farmers in maize-producing regions can overcome declines in soil fertility and increase farm income.
More than 130 million farmers live in the moist savannah of coastal and central sub-Sahara Africa. Many record annual crop losses. Abaidoo says it’s these farmers who will benefit most from the improved techniques.
The research shows that the solution to higher maize yields lies in the proper mix of fertilizers and organic nutrients, manure made from plant and animal waste. It also proves there are many benefits from rotating maize with legumes crops like soybean and cowpea, which are rich in nitrogen and protein.
A former IITA project leader, Professor Dan Diels, says by working together the researchers were able to take practical problems into account and develop simple technologies that could be adopted by farmers.
Maize is an important food in Africa and the main ingredient in several well-known national dishes. Examples are tuwon masara and akamu in northern Nigeria, Koga in Cameroon, injera in Ethiopia and ugali in Kenya. It’s also used as animal feed and as raw material for brewing beer and for producing starch.
The FAO says over the decades, fertilizers and other inputs to enrich the soil have been used to help improve maize production in West and Central Africa. In response, maize yields there have increased from three million hectares 25 years ago to three times that amount today. However, as food production increased, so has the population, which put more pressure on food supply.