Scientists from Zimbabwe and Malawi are collaborating on a project to develop low-cost, environmentally friendly bio-fertilisers to help smallholder farmers increase crop productivity while reducing the use of chemical fertilizers that degrade soil quality.

The joint research, according to principal investigators Dr Thembekile Ncube (Zimbabwe) and Dr Keston Njira (Malawi), aimed to reduce the negative effects on the natural environment caused by the overuse of chemical fertilisers.

Chemical fertilizers, they claim in their study report, have caused soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, all of which have contributed to climatic change and global warming.

This they say, posed a serious threat to the sustainability of food systems not only to Zimbabwe and Malawi, but to the rest of Africa.

Their study is largely driven by the philosophy that good soil health is in the best interests of everyone, not only farmers.

The R & D pursuits on bio-fertilisers is being undertaken by the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) in partnership with scientists from the National Commission of Science and Technology in Malawi.

Scientific bodies from Zimbabwe and Malawi are participating in Phase Two of the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI).

A total of 16 African countries, including Zimbabwe, are participating in the SGCI programme.

This initiative was building up on Phase One of SGCI’s objective of seeking to strengthen the capacities of Science Granting Councils (SGCs) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to support research and evidence-based policies that will contribute to socio-economic development.

The joint research on bio-fertilisers is jointly funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), now known as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

Dr Ncube and Dr Njira say bio-organic fertilisers are beneficial as they contain living microorganisms that can improve microbial balance and ultimately crop quality.

They say these microorganisms do a lot of invisible work in the soil, such as converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use

“Our study largely aims to identify indigenous microbial strains with a potential of enhancing soil fertility through solubilisation of various nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and zinc) and Nitrogen fixation,” the scientists say.

“We also want to come up with microbial consortia based bio-fertilisers for increasing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and zinc nutrition in plants as well as to assess performance of microbial based bio-fertilisers in increasing productivity of maize and commonly grown legumes such as soyabean and groundnuts.”

There is a growing adoption of organic farming methods in various parts of the world as scientists and farmers seek more sustainable approaches towards agriculture that uses environmentally benign practices to ensure food security while protecting and nurturing soil biodiversity.

Zimbabwe and Malawi researchers hope to develop bio-fertilisers that can provide optimum nutrients to crops and enhance soil potency.

Activities by the scientists have already covered aspects related to the isolation of nutrient releasing microbial consortia (Phosphates, Nitrates, Potassium) from roots and soils, laboratory screening of the microbes for plant growth and profiling.

Scientists were also expected to conduct selection and compatibility testing as well as greenhouse screening of microbes to promote growth.

UN Food and Agriculture Global Soil Partnership soil experts say biofertiliser are “an inexpensive and safe alternative to chemical fertilisers.”

The scientists say in the case of nitrogen, bio-fertilisers have the potential to reduce nitrous oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas around 300 times more powerful than CO2), and contamination of groundwater and coastal ecosystems.

Soil is critical for the food everyone eats and healthy soils matter not just for producing 95% of global food supplies, but also for safeguarding other aspects of human health.

Soils sequester a massive amount of carbon (over twice as much as the atmosphere and all plants combined).

In addition, microbes in healthy soils lead to the development of antibiotics and other medicines.

If the R&D is successful, the scientists from Malawi and Zimbabwe hope to commercialise the biofertiliser products to sustain agricultural production and meet the demand of increasing population for agricultural-based products while conserving and sustaining the natural resources for future generation.

The benefits of bio-fertilisers in enhancing productivity and quality of agricultural products have already been proven through various research work carried out worldwide.

And, despite this, bio-fertilisers remain underutilised on a large scale in both Zimbabwe and Malawi.

“Assisting small-scale subsistence farmers in boosting their agricultural activities and productivity through the application of the biofertiliser, increasing their food self-sustenance and capacity to commercialise their produce as well is the ultimate goal of our research activity,” Dr Ncube and Dr Njira said.

“Educating policy makers on the merits of embracing the usage of bio-fertilisers remains key so that policies are put in place to encourage their use.

“Educating the general population, agriculture extension workers and the farmers on the benefits of using bioinoculants, safe handling and application of bio-fertilisers is one of our major expectations.”

Raising awareness among farmers, they said, could lead to better uptake of biofertilisers in providing good soil health, sustaining productivity of natural resources and attaining high productivity and higher cost-benefit ratio.

Agricultural practices in Malawi and Zimbabwe are still heavily reliant on synthetic inputs to ensure requisite yield and productivity.

Use of chemical or synthetic fertilisers has adverse effects on the environment and the quality of the soil.

With interest in sustainability on the rise, there is much effort targeted towards the development of organic and sustainable fertilizers as inputs.

Intensive farming, climate change, deforestation, industrial activity and natural processes have all taken their toll on soil.

Scientists say the effects can be physical (such as erosion of fertile topsoil), chemical (such as acidification of soil), or biological (such as loss of microbes).

Hopes are quite high that the development of a fairly simple technique – bio-fertilisers – can make a big difference.

The study by Zimbabwe and Malawi, in many ways, is the best way to reverse nutrient depletion in the earth by simply leaving nature to it.

It supports the basic principle behind practices like regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture and no-till agriculture.

These approaches share a commitment to reversing human-induced stress to soil.

“So we hope for a sustainable soil management practice, to be able to manage the healthy condition of the soil,” the researchers said.

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