Friday, July 20, 2012

Barren soils threaten future of farming in the Great Lakes region

Bananas growing near a homestead. The crop's yields in Eastern Africa are low due to poor soils and low fertilizer - organic or inorganic-application by small-holder farmers.

Most of the soils in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa are poor with very little fertility left in them. This is one of the main reasons behind the low yields in the area, which has one of the lowest rates of fertilizer use in the world and a rapidly increasing population to feed, according to a recent study.

The barren soils are a result of years of mining and insufficient replacement of nutrients by small-holder farmers mostly practicing low-input agriculture. They  remain a threat to the future of small-holder farming and the food and income of millions of people in the region if appropriate action is not taken.

The study, which sought to identify and rank the constraints faced by small-holder banana growers in the region, also measured the actual nutrient content left in the soilsin both the organic and mineral partacross different agroecoregions in Rwanda and Uganda.

This was after establishing that poor soil fertility was one of the main causes of the current low banana yield of 5-30 tons/year against a potential yield of over 70 tons/year. It accounted for up to 50% of the yield gap.

The study found that there was little fertility left in most soils and what was there was mostly due to the organic matter in the topsoil. Furthermore, while banana is a very important crop for the region, providing food and income for over 85% of the population, the use of external inputs such as fertilizers was virtually nonexistent and soil fertility was mostly managed by recycling local organic residues.

The study was conducted from 2007 to 2011 in four agroecological regions in Rwanda (Butare, Kibungo, and Ruhengeri) and South-West Uganda (Ntungamo) and looked at the banana plants, various crop management practices, pests and diseases, and the chemical properties of soils.

It was undertaken by Séverine Delstanche as a PhD student of the University of Louvain in Belgium and formed part of the Belgium (DGD)-funded project titled 'Sustainable and profitable banana-based systems for the African Great Lakes Region' led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). It was also part of the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) project.

The study further established that soil fertility and banana productivity varied not only between the regions but also within regions, villages, and at the farm level. The regional differences were due to differences in soils and their parental material whereas at the farm level, they were often the result of differential management practices. The soils close to the homestead were more fertile due to kitchen wastes of ashes and organic residues.

Delstanche says that despite the acknowledgment by farmers and researchers of the importance of soil fertility in agricultural production, little research has been carried out to understand the current state of soils and the impact of past and present farming practices.

Therefore, she says, farmers are unaware of the nutritional status of their soil and how best to make use of the little resources available to them to increase production and productivity.

Dr Piet van Asten, IITA systems agronomist, says the findings of this research are very significant. "We knew that our soils were poor but we did not know just how poor. But now, we've calculated the nutrient stocks and have learned that very little nutrients are left. Moreover, the soil fertility almost entirely depends on the organic matter in the soil."

"The study therefore stresses the importance of recycling crop residues to improve soil fertility. Over 80% of the nutrients in the soil comes from the organic matter and not from the clay or sand itself."

A related study by Van Asten and his team estimated that the over 100 trucks of banana bunches that reach Kampala everyday deplete the soils in the rural areas annually of 1.5 million kg of potassium (K) and 0.5 million kg of magnesium (Mg).

The study supports the Africa Union's Abuja declaration on fertilizers for an African Green Revolution which has stated that efforts to reduce hunger on the continent must begin by addressing its severely depleted soils and recommends countries to increase fertilizer use from the current 8 tons/ha to at least 50 tons/ha by 2015 to boost agricultural production.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

IITA trains on banana production techniques and pest management in Burundi

Workshop participants posing with their certificates at the end of the five-day training on banana production techniques and Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
IITA conducted a training on banana production techniques and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in Burundi as part of its on-going efforts to boost production of this key staple crop through technology transfer and technical backstopping to the Programme Post conflit de Development Rural (PPCDR)  project that is funded by the European Union (EU).  

The training, held from the 11th to 15th June 2012  in Ruyigi, Burundi, attracted 39 participants drawn from the zonal animators of PPCDR, farmers' associations, the Agriculture ministry MINAGRIE (Ministere de l'Agriculture et de l'Elevage), seed production centers and extension officers from Cankuzo, Kirundo, Rutana, Ruyigi and Muyinga provinces.

The training had six modules: banana morphology, the economic importance of banana, banana production systems, banana management practices and IPM, rapid and healthy banana planting material production methods and banana field data collection.

During the training, the participants were grouped in their respective provinces and they developed proposals on sustainable approaches to control banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) and banana bunchy top disease (BBTD).

The training ended with a field visit to identify banana pests, diseases and nutrients deficiency symptoms in surrounding farmer's fields. It was facilitated by Sylvestre Hakizimana of IITA with technical support from Emmanuel Njukwe, the IITA project manager.

Emmanuel Njukwe, the IITA project manager said the participants now had the technical know-how to manage banana mother gardens established in their respective provinces and macro-propagation units which will be installed in each site to rapidly produce clean banana planting material for farmers to stop the spread of the two deadly diseases, BXW and BBTD.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In Uganda, coffee and banana go better together

A field with coffee and banana inter-cropped  in Uganda
By Caity Peterson
You're hungry for pizza. Walking around the neighborhood, you find two pizzerias not far from each other. They're both selling pretty much the same thing - crust with cheese and tomatoes on top - and at the same price. But one offers you a free delicious ice-cold 2-liter soda to go with your hawaiian. That makes your choice easy, no?

Believe it or not, something similar is happening in Uganda. Only we're not talking about pizza, and the choice is a bit more complicated.

The comestibles in question here are two of the country's most important agricultural commodities. One, coffee, makes up 20-30% of Uganda's foreign exchange earnings and creates a cash boom for smallholders once or twice a year. The other, banana, is the country's principle staple crop, providing a small, steady food harvest all year long. In fact, Uganda was the 2nd largest banana producer in the world in 2008, and the 11th largest coffee producer.

By happy coincidence, both of these crops tend to grow at around the same altitude: from 800 to 2300 meters. Thus, considering growing human populations and farmers increasingly squeezed for space, it makes sense to grow them together, especially since coffee tends to produce more consistently when grown with a little bit of shade. Many farmers in Uganda are doing just that, intercropping banana and coffee to make good use of space in densely populated areas. Others are sticking with the old system or growing the two crops in separate plots, as used to be promoted by colonial extension services solely concerned with profits from the coffee cash crop and is often still promoted today, for apparent lack of a better option.

But which of these systems is actually the most beneficial for farmers? Until now, not much research has existed specifically targeting the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of coffee growing systems. The result is that government agencies and other advisory bodies have trouble knowing what to promote, and farmers are even more in the dark.

Ongoing research by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Kampala, Uganda, in collaboration with other CGIAR centers (CIAT, ICRAF, and CIFOR), has attempted to evaluate the benefits of different types of systems, including co-benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation and implications for pest and disease incidence.
 They have found that banana-coffee intercrop systems have the potential to be the most beneficial for farmers because they leave the yield of the coffee crop virtually untouched, while providing a little something extra in the form of more food for their personal use. Essentially, by combining the two crops farmers are greatly increasing the total yield value of a single plot of land, even if the yield for individual crops doesn’t change much. Bananas are to coffee crops what our free soda is to pizzerias – it doesn’t change the pizza, but it’s a nice bonus nonetheless.

Furthermore, including bananas in the coffee system spreads the farmers’ risk. If one crop fails or is decimated by a disease, they can still get a harvest from the other. Ugandan farmers have reported that the shade from the bananas also decreases their coffee’s susceptibility to drought and extreme weather events due to climate change. The residues from the trees provide in-situ mulch which would otherwise cost them much capital and labor to bring in. They say bananas also motivate them to better manage their coffee crops during the first 3-5 unproductive years, because the bananas are producing even when the coffee is not. This is especially true for the female half of the community, which often doesn’t see the money from a coffee sale come back to the household but can use the banana harvest for home consumption.

There are trade-offs, of course. The intercrop system removes larger quantities of nutrients from the soil, and, in the long-term, coffee can eventually out-compete banana. The system can also require larger inputs of labor and capital at the outset. Accordingly, the success of intercrop systems will require identification of major production constraints – principally soil fertility – and the development of site-specific recommendations to address them.

Recently, the IITA team has been taking a more climate-centric focus to their crop system analyses, collaborating on the development of suitability maps for East African coffee crops, pests, and diseases and investigating the mitigation potential of the coffee-banana intercrop system. For more info on past and current IITA work in Uganda – and parallel projects on cocoa systems in Cameroon and Nigeria – check out the following resources:

See original story on CCAFs blog:

Monday, July 2, 2012

IITA and NARO to strengthen partnership on agricultural research for the benefit of the region

Dr Emily Twinamasiko, NARO DG

IITA and the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) have agreed to strengthen their collaboration to boost agriculture in the country and beyond following a meeting between the Directors Generals of the two institutes, IITA’s Dr Nteranya Sanginga and NARO’s Dr. Emily Twinamasiko at NARO’s headquarters in Entebbe.

Dr Sanginga noted that NARO was widely recognized for having one of the strongest banana and cassava research programs in Africa. IITA has not only been supporting these programs but has also benefitted tremendously from them to achieve its mission of fighting hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sanginga said IITA was very keen to work more strategically with NARO, tapping into its rich knowledge base and experienced staff, not only through joint research projects, but also on the CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) such as the one on Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB – CRP3.4) and the IITA-led Humidtropics program (CRP1.2).

He identified capacity building as one areas that NARO can play a significant role in the region for the benefit of countries such as South Sudan.

“We need to work better together, carry out joint planning and share credits for successful outputs. We need to share resources, frustrations and successes,” he said.

He observed the two institutions were working very well in a joint program to develop genetically transformed bananas for resistance against Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW). He informed his NARO counterpart that he had earlier met with the NARO banana program leader Dr. Wilberforce Tushemereirwe who had briefed him on the progress made in the search for a sustainable solution to the bacterial disease that had greatly affected the production of this important food staple in the region since 2003.

He further invited both Drs. Twinamasiko and Tushemereirwe to visit IITA-Ibadan later this year to further shape the collaboration. The two accepted the invitation and welcomed the proposal to strengthen collaborations with NARO. Twinamasiko said that indeed the two institutions can benefit immensely from working better together and that there were many opportunities to do so.

IITA established office in Uganda in 1992 and has mostly been working on banana and cassava although some of its maize, yam, cowpea, and soybean germplasm have also reached the country. In recent years, the two have collaborated on coffee-based farming systems and climate change.

Beyond joint biotech work on banana and cassava, NARO and IITA have taken pride in having developed highland banana hybrids and resistant cassava varieties that have found their way to farmers’ fields. The institutes’ phytopathologists exported the Ugandan expertise to the larger region such as DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Tushemereirwe, NARO banana program leader gives
Sanginga, IITA DG,  a tour of joint NARO/IITA field trials
at Kawanda, Uganda,  where work on banana
transformation  is going on.
During his five-day visit to Uganda, in addition to participating at the Global Cassava Partnership for 21st Century conference, Sanginga also met with ambassadors and senior officers in the donor community including a visit to the USAID Mission, Belgian Embassy, Dutch Embassy, European Union Head of Delegation, and aBi-Trust to strengthen collaboration with IITA.

He also visited the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central (ASARECA), another key partner for IITA and held meeting with both national staffs and IITA scientists with R4D activities in Uganda. He toured NARO and IITA’s research facilities and fields to see the various on-going research activities.

Sanginga was accompanied by Victor Manyong, IITA Director for Eastern Africa, Piet Van Asten, the Uganda Country Representative and some of the regional scientists - Jim Lorenzen, the banana breeder, Danny Coyne, a Nematologist  and Fen Beed, a Plant Pathologist, in many of the visits.