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SATrends Issue 2
January 2001



1. Things Grow Better with Coke®: Micro-fertilizer System Sparks 50-100 Percent Millet Yield Increases in the Sahel

In the exceedingly dry West African nation of Niger, an estimated 5,000 farmers have used Coca-Cola bottle caps to measure and apply small doses of fertilizer to their crops. In the process they not only experienced yield jumps of 50 to 100 percent, but began reversing a 50-year trend of declining crop yields and growing soil degradation.

The technology was jointly developed and tested by the University of Hohenheim (Germany), ICRISAT, the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), the National Agricultural Research Institute of Niger, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), together with a number of non-governmental organizations. The team is based at the ICRISAT Sahelian Centre, 40 kilometers east of Niamey, Niger's capital city. 

CapinHand.jpg (6485 bytes)"I'm not sure why, but farmers tend to favor the Coca-Cola caps over other brands," Dr Andre Bationo, a soil scientist working jointly for IFDC and ICRISAT, says. "They deliver the fertilizer in precisely the right amount, about 6 grams per individual group of plants - which supplies 4 kilograms of phosphorous (the key limiting nutrient) per hectare," he says.  Farmers in Europe and North America usually apply three to six times that amount. 

Millet, the world's most drought-tolerant cereal crop, is all that stands between survival and starvation for the peoples living in the Sahel - the dry belt that stretches across the width of Africa along southern edge of the Sahara desert. According to the World Bank, Niger's millet yields have declined almost 3 percent annually since the mid-1980s, even though the area cultivated has doubled.


"What you find in Niger and in much of the rest of the Sahel isn't subsistence farming," says T.J. Wyatt, an economist with ICRISAT. "It's really sub-subsistence.  So a large increase in productivity means a great deal."

Bationo adds, "When people think of Sahelian agriculture, they usually think of water as the limiting factor. It's not.  Water is basic, but soil fertility is just as important."


"We talked to a lot of farmers before the research actually began just to understand the problem," notes Prof. Andreas Buerkert of the University of Hohenheim.  "Several more years of research were required to find the precise mix of phosphorus and nitrogen that would form the basis for the Coca-Cola cap technique." 

"We faced the possibility of losing a large part of the harvest this year," Bationo says.  Because of a complete cessation of normal rainfall in August and much of September, farm communities in Chad, Burkina Faso and large parts of Niger face food shortages in 2001, according to FAO. The situation was so serious that in early September, Niger's President, Mahamadou Tandja, delayed a parliamentary meeting and asked that his ministers go to mosque and pray for rain.Coke4.jpg (5980 bytes)

But the farmers who experimented with the bottle cap micro-dosage system were visibly better off than their neighbors.  In field after field, it was apparent that the "Coca-Cola" plots were more productive and that grain filling had already occurred. "The fertilizer micro-doses not only increased production," Bationo said, "but also seemed to help the plants mature earlier. The "Coca-Cola plants" seem to have escaped the worst of the drought."            

This is the third consecutive year that the Coca-Cola method generated these exciting results.  But to complete the system, farmers need a way to manage their meager finances to be able to purchase fertilizer again each year. To do this, FAO and several local NGOs are testing the Coca-Cola system in combination with agricultural credits available through Niger's Ministry of Agriculture, says FAO expert Daniel Marchal.  The system is known as "warrantage."


Under the warrantage scheme, farmers put up a large part of their millet crop as collateral for a cash loan.  They then buy millet on the open market at the low prices that prevail just after the harvest to meet their food needs. They resell their stored grain four months later, when prices are often 40% higher.  They pay off the loan with the profits and use some of the profits to buy fertilizer the following year, creating a cycle of increasing prosperity. 

"Using the Coca-Cola system to fertilize our crops makes it possible for us to get the loan.  Otherwise we wouldn't have enough grain to earn the cash we need to pay interest and make a profit," one farmer explained.


For the smallholder farmers of the Sahel, things really are growing better with Coke!

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This story is also available on the Future Harvest website


2.Groundnut (Peanut) Production Accelerates in Vietnam


Groundnut production in Vietnam has almost doubled in the last 10 years to 400,000 tons in 2000, according to Dr. Tran Dinh Long, Deputy Director General of the Vietnam Agricultural Science Institute (VASI), Hanoi. Most impressive is a 50% increase in productivity since 1990, to a current 1.5 tons per hectare.

Dr. Long says "this remarkable development resulted from the large-scale application of a groundnut production technology package." Developed by VASI with technical assistance from ICRISAT through the Cereals and Legumes Asia Network (CLAN), the package combines several technologies: improved seed, better fertilizer management, and efficient agronomic practices.


The package included some ingenious solutions to specific problems of Vietnamese farmers. One such product was the Alternative Coconut Ash (ACA), a chemical substitute for coconut ash. Vietnamese farmers routinely use coconut ash to provide valuable nutrients to their groundnut crop. When coconut ash became scarce and expensive, groundnut production declined in the country.

The scientists came up with a cheaper solution called ACA - a combination of nitrogen, lime, borax, phosphorus, and potash - that is now being produced commercially in Vietnam.

Celebrating this fruitful partnership, Dr. Long visited ICRISAT recently and presented Director General William Dar with a copy of the book "Technologies to Achieve High Groundnut Yields in Vietnam", published by the Agriculture Publishing House, Hanoi. The book praises the training that Vietnamese scientists received at ICRISAT, where they "got good opportunities to learn about groundnut research and technologies of other countries in the world and in the region", Dr. Long said.

In recognition of their contribution, two researchers from ICRISAT - Drs. C.L.L. Gowda (in 1997) and C. Johansen (in 1999) - were honored with the Vietnamese Medal of Agriculture and Rural Development.


ICRISAT's contribution to work on groundnut in Vietnam began in 1990 under the 'Asian Grain Legumes On-Farm Research' project funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). After 1995, the research continued with funding to CLAN provided by the Asian Development Bank, and from ICRISAT.

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3.Pigeonpea Broadens Farmer's Options in Sudan


Sudan-ICRISAT partnership has identified a 'new' pulse crop with tremendous potential to reduce imports and provide an affordable, nutritious, high-protein foodstuff for the poor. (Pulses are food grain legumes like lentils, peas, and beans).

The early-maturing, high-yielding pigeonpea line ICPL 90028 (named 'Tayba') was identified through collaborative germplasm exchange and testing. About 50,000 hectares of underutilized summer fallow land in the massive Gezira irrigation scheme (about 250 kilometers south of Khartoum) can now be made productive, while enriching the soil with this nitrogen-fixing legume.


Another pulse, called faba bean, is the traditional daily staple in Sudan.  But faba bean prices are climbing beyond the reach of the poor, because demand greatly exceeds supply. There is insufficient irrigated land in the cool north, the temperature regime that faba bean needs. Further south in Gezira, it is too warm for faba beans in the summer - and during the cooler winter season, it competes for space and water with another staple crop - wheat.

Sudan's Agricultural Research Corporation asked ICRISAT to help it find alternative pulse crops that could fit into the Gezira climate and cropping system, and would be acceptable to consumers. Pigeonpea - a bushlike, drought and heat-tolerant pulse - came immediately to mind.

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But traditional pigeonpea varieties took too long to mature - they could not mature in time for the winter wheat sowing. Genetic diversity - ICRISAT's forte - came to the rescue. ICRISAT had been using plant breeding for decades to shorten the traditional six-month growth cycle, and succeeded in cutting the life cycle to four months without sacrificing yield potential.

Testing these lines in environments closely emulating a range of African conditions, ICRISAT scientists based in Nairobi used the Kenya Transect (a belt of research sites on the Equator rising from near sea level to 2000 m) to identify varieties that might work for Sudan.

Another requirement also had to be met: consumer's preference for large, brown-seeded pulses, like the faba beans they are familiar with.  Fortunately, the wide diversity of the lines under test allowed the breeders to find one with just the right grain type combined with four-month maturity: ICPL 90028.

Enthused by this success, Sudan is asking ICRISAT's further help in finding pigeonpea varieties suited to rainfed conditions in the northeast of the country around Gedaref - a vast potential of over a million hectares.

"Helping developing countries diversify their cropping options is a very important way that ICRISAT delivers benefits from its world-leading germplasm collection and plant breeding skills", says Dr. Jill Lenné, Deputy Director General. "This is a great example of the payoffs that come from long-term investments in agricultural research.

"In addition to steady long-term support from the CGIAR core development investors, ICRISAT's assistance to Sudan was made possible through supplemental support from the African Development Bank and USAID, through the Technology Transfer Network - under the auspices of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).

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4. Private Sector Invests in Public Plant Breeding Research at ICRISAT


Alarmed by continuing declines in Western assistance to the developing countries for agricultural research, a coalition of small and large seed enterprises in India is helping to fill the breach. Fourteen companies have pledged $109,000 annually to help support applied plant breeding research at ICRISAT for five years.  All materials developed through this research will remain as international public goods, freely available to all.

The confidence shown by the private sector in ICRISAT stems from a proven track record. To quote M. Prabhakar Rao, President of the Seedsmen Association, "Over the years the Indian farming community in general and the seed industry in particular have derived enormous benefit from ICRISAT's research. Most of the germplasm being used in our research and development programs has some of its origin in ICRISAT. ICRISAT has been very generous and liberal in providing germplasm and other forms of assistance in crop research.

PrivSectorHyb.jpg (7543 bytes)" ICRISAT's research with ICAR, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, stimulated the take-off of the pearl millet seed industry in India in the 1980s and early '90s, by developing resistant varieties that controlled the downy mildew fungus - a scourge that had farmers on the brink of abandoning the crop. An estimated 75% of pearl millet hybrids in India (left), as well as 60-80% of private-sector sorghum hybrids, have been derived from ICRISAT parent lines.

Pigeonpea research by ICRISAT and its partners led to the control of the devastating wilt fungus, shaved months off plant duration, and resulted in the world's first-ever hybrid of any food legume crop. And a project partly funded by India's largest indigenous seed company, MAHYCO, has painstakingly developed a new and easier system for producing the hybrids, known as the cytoplasmic male-sterility (CMS). It is poised for major impact in the coming years.

Companies committed to the coalition include the global giants Monsanto and Aventis, along with a large number of home-grown seed companies: Advanta India, Cosmo, Ganga Kaveri Seeds, Hindustan Lever, J K Agri-Genetics, Mahendra Hybrid Seeds Co., MAHYCO, New Nandi Seeds Corporation, Plantgene, Proagro Seed Co., Prabhat Agri Biotech, and Shriram Bioseed Genetics India.

The research focuses on key issues like diversifying the genetic base of these crops to reduce vulnerability to diseases and pests and fit them into a wider range of cropping systems; seed quality; pest resistance; improved suitability for hybrid seed production; and field testing of promising hybrids.

"As wonderful as these investments are, they do not replace the enormously important role of international development assistance. Rather, they complement it," said Dr. William D. Dar, Director General of ICRISAT. Targeted investments by the private sector deliver quick impacts in poverty reduction and increased productivity. Public-sector investment ensures that long-term issues on matters such as environmental protection and poverty reduction remain at the heart of ICRISAT's agenda. Combined, they underpin a balanced research program for sustainable rural development.

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5 Highlights of Previous Issues:

December 2000:International Symposium on SAT Futures • Centers Team Up to Help East Timor •Spatial Variability in Watersheds•World's First Cytoplasmic Male-Sterile Hybrid Pigeonpea • Groundnut (Peanut) Variety Boosts Malawian Agriculture • National Researchers Persevere in El Salvador •ICRISAT Celebrates India-ICRISAT Day • ICRISAT and World Vision International Work Together in Southern Africa.