Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems

Crop research seeks to support African smallholders

Improved understanding of soil and plant interactions will aid productivity in key crops.

Researchers are leading a project to help smallholder farmers in East and Central Africa grow legume crops – pod plants and their seeds, such as chickpeas or lentils – with high yields and benefits for soil.

The approach, from the Global Academy for Agriculture and Food Security, is intended to help improve agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa as populations increase, to help farming communities improve food security and provide nutrition for families.

Their research, based on data from previous studies and new experiments, will seek to provide knowledge and tools to help smallholder farmers and farm advisors in Western Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eastern DR Congo.

Soil interactions

The team will seek to understand how different legumes such as climbing bean, soy bean and pigeon pea interact with soils, and develop a framework enabling farmers to match appropriate crops to their needs.

This will provide knowledge and tools to help smallholder farmers enhance their production.

A decision framework, LegumeCHOICE, is being improved as part of the LegumeSELECT project, whose overall aim is to enhance smallholder farm productivity.

The framework scores legume crops on how well they contribute different benefits to farmers. These scores are then used to match legume crops to the needs of farmers in different locations.

Researchers will use micro-CT X-Ray technology to visualise the root systems of live plants as they grow. This will help show how the 3D structure of root systems affects the availability of nitrogen in soils under different crop management practices.

Roots can be scanned repeatedly to track how a plant seeks out and exploits soil resources over time.

The project will also seek to quantify the impact of root systems on the soil, such as its porosity and capacity to retain water. Experiments will trace the amount of carbon and nitrogen in soil, as indicators of soil condition.

These carbon and nitrogen fingerprints will enable researchers to trace and quantify how much nitrogen is contributed by various plants towards improving soil fertility and the yields of other crops.

They will also allow the team to understand the impact that various plants have on the amount of carbon in soils, which can contribute to soil fertility.

Collaborative study

The project, funded by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund and the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, is a collaboration with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the James Hutton Institute, the University of Nottingham, and international partners.

These include the International Livestock Research Institute, the World Agroforestry Centre, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the Oromia Agricultural Research Institute in Ethiopia, the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization, and the Catholic University of Bukavu in DR Congo.

Image credit: Muneer Ahmed on Unsplash