1. Why donít they use
For many years, yields from smallholder African agriculture
have been falling. Soils were nutrient-poor to begin with, and
have been further depleted by continuous cereal cropping. The
solution? Use fertilizers to replace lost nutrients. But few
smallholders use fertilizer, especially in drought-prone areas
- precisely those areas where the soils are most heavily
Why are farmers reluctant to use fertilizer? Several
explanations are frequently reported: too expensive, not
easily available, not available in convenient pack sizes...
However, another school of thought says farmers, consciously
or otherwise, examine rates of return on their investments.
They are not investing in soil fertility simply because they
have better investment options.
Consider fertilizer use in terms of risks and returns. In
areas with high, reliable rainfall, purchasing a few bags of
ammonium nitrate will almost always yield a profit. But in a
drought-prone area, itís much riskier - if the rains fail the
crop will fail too, even if fertilizer is used. So the farmer
loses not only his crop but his fertilizer investment.
Pigeonpea intercropped with maize
ICRISAT economists evaluated the risk-return tradeoffs for
several different soil fertility technologies in Zimbabwe.
These included cereal-legume rotations, intercrops, manure and
fertilizer at various dosages and combinations, as well as
various types of manure treatment. Field experiments were
conducted for two seasons at three pilot sites jointly by the
national research and extension Services, ICRISAT, CIMMYT, the
Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility (TSBF) Programme, and most
important, the farmers themselves.
Interestingly, the numbers depend not only on rainfall and
economic status but also on gender. Male- and female-headed
households show significant differences in fertilizer use. So
do two types of female-headed households, the de facto
(husband away, works in town) and de jure (no husband -
For each group in each area, the most appropriate
investment strategies were identified. For example, for a
male-headed household with access to labor and draft animals
in a low-rainfall area, the most profitable technologies are:
maize with 9 kg/ha of nitrogen applied, maize with kraal
manure plus 18 kg/ha nitrogen, maize-groundnut rotation, and
maize-cowpea rotation. For de facto female-headed
households with fewer natural resource endowments but better
access to cash from the husbandís remittances, the best option
was maize with kraal manure plus 18 kg N/ha.
In general, for the poorest families, the best options to
improve soil fertility were legume rotations and intercrops.
Legumes improve soil fertility, and provide a high-protein
diet supplement that substantially improves family nutrition.
Perhaps most important, they are valuable cash crops, widely
traded in most communities.
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2. Grey to green - literally
Rajasthan in western India. Images that come to mind are
those of camels stretching their legs over desert sand, hot,
dry and rocky land, thirsty underfed livestock, and villagers
wearing brilliant colors to offset their drab surroundings.
This is just imagination one might argue, but it takes even
more imagination to picture this landscape with green meadows,
shady trees, and cool spots where the Nilgai (blue
bull) rests. Such a place is evolving as we speak, thanks to
the efforts of ICRISAT and a consortium of partners (Sir
Dorabji Tata Trust, the NGO Bharatiya Agro Industries
Foundation, the Government of Rajasthan, various agencies
within the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the
National Remote Sensing Agency), who have converted hard,
rocky, stony, unyielding land into useful pastures.
The consortium and people from nearby villages took an area
of 18 hectares of common village land in the district of Bundi
in eastern Rajasthan, and using soil and water conservation
measures such as continuous contour trenches, 200 staggered
trenches, 293 mini-percolation tanks, and six gully plugs,
brought it to a level hospitable to useful plants. They
planted 25,000 Jatropha curcas and Pongamia
pinnata trees (in time the mature seeds of these trees
will produce diesel supplements), Stylosanthes grass
and local Dhaman grass to hold the mud bunds together,
Glyricidia trees to improve soil nitrogen, and commercially
viable plants such as neem, Ziziphus, and Acacia
for income generation in this area.
The Green Island taking shape
The project started in June 2002 and will run for five
years (the pictures are therefore of very young plants).
Contrasted with the nearby denuded common village land, this
'Green Island' will provide the valuable fodder for cattle and
regular income to the Panchayat (local village
The benefits of the active participation by the community
and the willing support from the Rajasthan Government and
other consortium partners were evident at the recently-held
ICRISAT Farmers Day in that part of the country, where the
rehabilitated common ground was a big showpiece. The project
is also being effected in a nearby 5 ha plot of land, and the
partners expect to spread this technology to more and more
degraded areas in and around the State by the end of the
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You can't afford a satellite to take pictures of your farm?
Try flying a kite. It may sound crazy, but this is exactly
what ICRISAT scientists in Niamey, Niger, are doing - and it
Following a May 2001 visit to INRACI, an educational
institute specializing in electronics and cinema in Brussels,
ICRISAT scientists Philippe Delfosse and Bruno Gerard, both
Belgians, presented their purchase department with a wish list
for additional electronic equipment for improved aerial
photography. The system was developed by Olivier Hendricks
under the supervision of Jean Morren, with a former ICRISAT
scientist, Charles Bielders (now at the University of Louvain)
and Delfosse as promoters, and Gerard acts as advisor. Funds
for the project were provided by the Peanut Clump Virus (PCV)
Project, which is funded by the Belgium government. Says
Delfosse, 'The system is simply amazing!'
Hereís how it works. A digital camera is fixed to a balloon
or a kite along with video equipment, and sent up to an
altitude of about 1000 m. The equipment includes a GPS and a
full remote control system to orientate the camera. Altogether
the kit weighs less than 2 kg.
The operator on the ground views the image on a 14-inch
color monitor. A read-out on the screen shows the status of
the battery, the number of shots taken, the exposure and the
aperture. On the remote control board, a small LCD displays
either the altitude and position or the status of the
batteries of the video sender. The same remote operates the
servos that orient the camera and turn the video sender on or
A birdís perspective of a farmerís groundnut field
featuring large peanut clump virus patches) and millet fields
(low millet population).]
The scientists spent around $2500 for everything - not too
much for a research tool that provides high-resolution images
of the area being photographed. Results are immediate, and the
quality of the digital photography is 5 million pixels per
Olivier came to Sadorť to fine-tune the system on the
ground. He brought the electronics and Delfosse built most of
the frame. Scientists evaluated the system in Maradi, a town
500 km east of Niamey, for a week, and for two days in Fakara,
one of our benchmark sites 50 km east of Niamey. An immediate
use is to estimate losses to peanut clump virus in this
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4. Baselines surveys in
Tanzania, one of ICRISATís four target countries in
southern Africa, is a large country with substantial semi-arid
areas and increasing poverty and hunger in many regions.
ICRISAT and its partners are working to boost smallholder
agriculture there by testing and promoting new technologies
that can improve productivity and incomes.
In most development work the first step is to establish a
baseline. This serves two functions. First, it establishes the
starting point, so that future progress can be measured.
Second, it helps better understand the local farming system,
identify the key problems, and tailor the research agenda
ICRISAT economists recently completed a baseline survey in
Tanzania. Four districts were covered: Dodoma Rural, Kondoa,
Singida Rural and Babati. The first three lie in the dry
Central Plateau, where sorghum and pearl millet are the
dominant crops. Babati, in the Arusha region of northern
Tanzania, is the countryís most important pigeonpea area.
The farming system is fairly diverse: sorghum, pearl
millet, maize, plus a variety of legumes (pigeonpea,
groundnut, cowpea, beans), and a few cash crops like sunflower
and sesame. ICRISAT recently introduced a new
sorghum/pigeonpea intercropping system, which is steadily
growing more popular. First, the research team held informal
discussions with farmers on cropping systems, resource
requirements, constraints, and so on. This information was
supplemented through interviews with scientists, extension
officers and rural traders. This was followed by a formal
survey covering a wide range of issues.
Farmer and surveyor
The survey found that farmers were generally aware of new
technologies. For example, 80% of the farmers surveyed were
aware of improved sorghum varieties, over 80% were aware of
the new sorghum-pigeonpea intercropping system, and 67% knew
that fertilizer application could improve yields. But thereís
a big difference between being aware of a new technology and
actually adopting it. Only 50% of farmers grew improved
sorghum varieties, 40% had planted a sorghum-pigeonpea
intercrop, and less than 8% had ever used fertilizer!
Why is adoption so poor? The survey found many reasons, but
the most important was lack of information. Almost every
farmer who had not adopted the intercropping technology cited
lack of information - he had heard about the new system, but
didnít know too much about it and wasnít confident enough to
try it. Various reasons were cited for non-adoption of other
technologies (lack of seed, cost of fertilizer, too much
This information is priceless. With a clearer understanding
of both agro-ecological and socioeconomic factors, ICRISAT and
its partners can improve R&D targeting, making new
technologies more relevant and more valuable to Tanzaniaís
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