CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) is a charity that uses the revenue from their publishing products to fund scientific research and carry out international development projects and free consultancy services in developing economies.
I worked at CABI for a while before moving back to laboratory-based research. I truly enjoyed working in a place where people were valued- as a not-for-profit organisation, CABI mostly focuses on the final beneficiaries of its science dissemination projects and initiatives.
One example of CABI’s interventions is its recent campaign to improve and maintain soil fertility in Sub-Saharan countries.
Soil fertility in Sub-Saharan countries is poor. Soils are old, highly weathered, and have been submitted to continuous cultivation without any level of nutrient replacement. Also, these regions are exposed to extreme weather conditions, which in combination with poor agricultural practices lead to high levels of soil erosion. Soil fertility became one of the most important constraints to farm productivity.
CABI’s solution to this problem passes through the integrated increase in fertility use with other practices of soil fertility management.
In 2012, I was delighted and proud to be invited to be an editor and proofreader of the Portuguese version of the Handbook for Integrated Soil Fertility Management (2012). This book, produced by the Africa Soil Health Consortium (ASHC), was the main outcome of a project supported by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation.
From 2013, CABI’s remarkable science dissemination work on soil fertility continued through the “OFRA” project: Optimising Fertilizer Recommendations in Africa. This project was led by CABI and by the University of Nebraska Lincoln and was supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Soil Health program. It involved 13 sub-Saharan African countries.
Apart from these best practice manuals, many other types of science dissemination products were developed including short-films, brochures and posters to be presented in local workshops often organised in community centres, schools and rural extension units.
These materials were carefully prepared. These manuals do not contain bullet proof-solutions; instead, they offer a range of possible solutions with examples, to cover the diversity of circumstances that smallholder farmers face in Sub-Saharan countries. The texts often revolve around the question “How much would you be prepared to invest, given your circumstances?” This problem is then broken down into several practical assessment questions that help each farmer figure out the best solution for his/her farm, their crops of choice and the current economic forces shaping the market.
Another interesting OFRA product is the FOT (Fertilizer Optimisation Tool) which consists of an excel sheet programmed with an optimisation function which allows farmers to automatically obtain optimum fertilisation solutions for their farms. Here, optimum rates are not the fertiliser rates that allow for maximum crop productivity but the ones that allow for the highest productivity and profitability given the farmers and markets economic constraints. The FOT takes into account the ecogeographic region in which the farm is located, the size of the cultivation field, the farmer's cropping system, the current price of a 50 kg bag of fertiliser (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), the expected price of crop at the market (per kg), and finally the farmer’s budget constraint.
The Fertilization Optimizing Tool output window comes up with three tables. Table 1 contains the Recommended Fertiliser Application Rates for each nutrient (kg/ha) and each crop in the farm. Table 2 consists of the Expected Average Effects of the application of fertilisers at the recommended rate (per ha) for each crop. Finally, Table 3 summarises the Expected Total Net Return for the farm after the application of fertiliser at the recommended rates.
The potential impact of science dissemination projects like these is vast. A gradual Improvement on soil fertility alongside other practices that increase efficiency and profitability from fertiliser investment will contribute to ensuring the sustainability of cropping systems in Africa in the long-term, while ultimately empowering communities and improving the livelihood of many.