Science - October 16, 2009

Gates' gift: 17 million to improve soil fertility in Africa

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives 17.2 million dollars (11.5 million euros) to a Wageningen project to improve soil fertility and food production in Africa. Project manager Ken Giller will concentrate on nitrogen fixation in leguminous plants.

Ken Giller
Giller wants to raise food production in Africa by more extensive and better use of legume vegetation such as beans, soya and nuts. Such vegetation can derive nitrogen from the air, in a symbiotic relation with certain bacteria and fungi. They therefore require less fertilizers to grow.
A consortium of research and development organizations in Africa will carry out this research.
Giller of Wageningen University has worked for more than twenty years with African researchers in studying nitrogen fixation in the African context. 'This new project will build upon the successes achieved so far. An international network of researchers, information providers and non-governmental organizations has developed useful techniques which could have a major impact', says this professor of the Plant Production Systems Group.
The project aims to benefit more than two hundred thousand small farmers in eight African countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
Gates announced this contribution during the award ceremony of the World Food Prize in Iowa. 'Melinda and I have full confidence that this will help small and poor farmers to have better harvests. We think that this is the most powerful way to fight hunger and poverty in the world.'
Legume plants can fix nitrogen in the air with the help of special bacteria present in their root nodules. The bacteria obtain nitrogen from the air for the plants, in exchange for the sugars which the plants supply for their growth. This symbiosis between plant and bacteria currently occurs only on a limited scale in Africa. The bacteria are not widespread in the soils; African soils are also poor in other nutrients, such as phosphates. A relatively simple technique would enable African farmers to add seeds and bacteria, in addition to nutrients, to the soil. This combination would enable farmers to double their harvests, as research has shown.
Another major research partner in the project is the Brazilian research institute Embrapa. Just recently, Giller was the supervisor for Embrapa researcher Glaciela Kaschuk, who has achieved new insights into nitrogen fixation in legumes.