The push for a “Green Revolution” in African agriculture has boosted crop yields as much as three-fold and helped reduce hunger for about 20 million rural Africans. But the remarkable effort has yet to reach 250 million rural people who remain malnourished in rural Sub-Saharan regions.
Now, two new programs in Ethiopia and Tanzania will adapt modern technology such as an innovative “lab-in-a-box,” smartphones and web-based communications linked to digital soil mapping, along with intensive training for agricultural extension workers, to broaden the reach of that “Green Revolution.”
The two collaborative projects are being funded by grants from the DuPont and Monsanto companies, announced Friday, which will strengthen the work of researchers from the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, in cooperation with agricultural agencies in the two countries and several other partners.
“This is the beginning of very effective relationship between our university, our African partners, and two leading private sector companies who are committed to address food security in Africa,” Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture Program, said. “These two leading seed companies recognize that without precise information on how to replenish the fertility of African soils, improved seeds of all crops will not reach their potential.”
The Earth Institute and its partners have played a major role in combating hunger in Africa since 2004, when then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for “a uniquely African Green Revolution.” Sanchez and others working on the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger released a report the following year making recommendations they said could reduce hunger by half by 2015.
The Tropical Agriculture Program and its partners started the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS) in 2009 to develop a digital map of soil properties of the non-desert portions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Understanding nutrient levels, water retention and other properties of soils – and getting that information back to farmers in a timely way – is key to helping the region feed its people.
DuPont is contributing $1 million over three years for the agronomic dimension of the Tropical Agriculture project in Ethiopia.
Monsanto will contribute $400,000 for a similar project in Tanzania for the first year of a planned three-year effort – part of $50 million in grants the company has pledged to support agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Tropical Agriculture program is seeking support for similar work in Nigeria and Ghana, the two other countries where a second phase of the digital soil map project is planned.
“Developing this system will begin to overcome one of the major constraints currently faced in Africa that impedes the practical use of soils information,” the proposal states. “Crop yields will increase, decreasing hunger, improving nutrition, improving soil health and facilitating the use of improved varieties and hybrids.”
The system should help farmers determine optimal fertilizer blends in each area, and increase the productivity of hybrids for important crops such as maize that are designed to adapt to conditions in various regions.
The results of the project could be applied to other growing areas that have been stuck for years with low yields in Sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti and elsewhere.
The grant announcements coincide with a major new public-private initiative by the Obama administration to improve nutrition and help farmers in Africa build local markets and improve productivity. Among the private participants are DuPont and Monsanto and other companies, including nearly 20 from Africa.