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Boosting indigenous vegetable production in West Africa with fertilizer micro-dosing

January 10, 2019

Smallholder rural farmers in Benin and Nigeria, particularly women, rely on indigenous vegetables loaded with key vitamins and nutrients to complement their families’ daily diet. But poor soil fertility, land degradation, and water scarcity have conspired to keep yields and quality low, which limits economic opportunities and threatens food security.

Two previous CIFSRF-supported projects developed several farmer-friendly and affordable solutions, including new technologies to improve farming practices, post-harvest vegetable handling, and food processing and value-added innovations that create new business opportunities for rural residents. However, what was missing was a proven approach to accelerate the large-scale adoption of these solutions to improve the production, marketing, and consumption of healthy indigenous vegetables.

The project worked with nearly 340,000 farmers to demonstrate that cooperation with various players in the value chain is the most effective way to scale up simple and affordable technologies and approaches proven to increase yields, incomes, and the consumption of indigenous vegetables. This Innovation Platform model addressed the concerns that matter most to farmers, notably women farmers: little or no production during the dry season, lack of high quality seeds, poor access to land, inadequate transportation, pest and disease problems, and poor fertilizer supply. Solutions such as fertilizer micro-dosing (locally applying small quantities of fertilizer) and water management, as well as improved marketing, demonstrated that indigenous vegetables can be economically and sustainably produced, processed, and marketed to improve the diversity of foods and nutrition as well as incomes for resource-limited farmers, their families, and rural communities in West Africa.

New and improved agricultural technologies and practices

Fertilizer micro-dosing, when combined with organic manure, was shown to produce enough macronutrients in the soil to sustainably produce vegetables. Several improved practices, such as fertilizer rates and water management, demonstrated optimum yield of vegetables. A seed production technology package was disseminated and an innovative capillary irrigation system was developed that saved millions of litres of water per hectare each growing season, while enhancing seed germination and early growing.

“Education is good”, said Bourin’doro Derou, a 74-year-old woman vegetable farmer from Benin. “It is not only in the classroom that people learn new things. We are learning new things on our farms here. I never believed that we could use such a small quantity of fertilizer to produce very good crops of vegetables. The scientists taught us the methods and it is just like magic to reduce production cost and improve profits.”

Scaling up solutions proven to work       

Scaling up the adoption of these techniques involved coordination and cooperation between farmers, marketers, processors, input sellers, transporters, extension, policymakers, and financial institutions. Successful promotional campaigns increased demand for vegetables and led to 338,000 farmers (51% women) using these farming techniques. Engaging traditional leaders has helped farmers to secure more land, and the land devoted to these crops has increased eight-fold over a three-year period (from 10,090 hectares to 81,686 hectares). It is primarily women (72%) who have led the marketing of indigenous vegetables in both countries, and the success of their marketing has increased revenue by approximately 120% in Nigeria and 90% in Benin.

Young Vegetables Scientists Clubs (YVSC) were launched in 124 Nigerian schools and 57 Beninese schools. In all, 112,870 YVSC members were trained in vegetable science and production technologies, and all 181 schools have since adopted YVSC as policy in their curriculum of activities. “I used to think indigenous vegetables were not economically relevant so I never considered growing them…” said Olu Oyeleke, a high school teacher in Nigeria. “We reluctantly started planting these vegetables in our school garden. Now our school has daily income and provides nutritious vegetables for the public, just like magic. It is more than unbelievable.”

A young scientist in Benin sells a bundle of amaranthus from the test crops

The project facilitated access to improved seeds for various indigenous vegetables in both Nigeria and Benin, and a system was developed with farmers, universities, and the private sector to ensure that quality seed production continues. In addition, a microfinance scheme with favourable repayment conditions and low interest rates was developed in Nigeria to provide small loans to vegetable farmers.

Increasing the nutritional and economic value of indigenous vegetables

The project also developed value-added methods to increase consumption of nutritious indigenous vegetables. A protocol was developed to extract and produce polyphenol from leafy vegetables. In animal tests, polyphenol concentrates are found to reduce blood pressure, inhibit digestive enzymes related to obesity and diabetes, and they show potential for fighting viral infections such as flu and diarrhea. The dried concentrate was successfully used to fortify local foods, juices, and pastry products. Fortified “green bread” and pineapple juice have been particularly popular with consumers, and these vegetable-enhanced products are generating new market opportunities, particularly for women entrepreneurs. Government agencies are helping to explore export potential. The team has also unveiled opportunities for new products on the nutraceutical industry based on vegetable extracts.

What’s next?

The project team is seeking new funding to certify and train more seed producers; conduct scientific research on polyphenols, including human trials; and track vegetable production and water quality in the long term.

A process has begun with the Standards Organization of Nigeria to establish the Nigerian Standard for green pastry products, as well as a policy to speed certification of these products. In Benin, the project has established a partnership with the Direction de l'Alimentation et de la Nutrition Appliquée to begin certifying the value-added products.

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is jointly funded by IDRC and Global Affairs Canada.

Learn more about this project and its outcomes.