ACCESS TO INPUTS
Inoculants: a boost in awareness and availability
Photography: Taskscape Media
People have long been aware of the benefits of biological nitrogen fixation by grain legumes, but the use of rhizobial inoculants by smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa was extremely limited. Thanks to the efforts of N2Africa and partners, rhizobial inoculants are now available in all countries where N2Africa has been active.
Almost two decades ago, professor Ken Giller* concluded that grain legumes that could nodulate and fix nitrogen without inoculation were the best options for smallholder farmers, due to the perceived problems of delivering rhizobial inoculants. At that time, this conclusion was reached largely because inoculants were not available in the great majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Production was mainly at national research laboratories, and only on a small scale and primarily for research purposes. However, the increasing numbers of reports of benefits of inoculation in Africa, mainly generated through the N2Africa project, have increased commercial interest in supplying inoculants.
Since the start of N2Africa’s activities in 2009, the whole landscape of awareness and deployment of nitrogen fixation by grain legumes in sub-Saharan Africa has changed. Rhizobial inoculants are now registered and marketed in all the countries where N2Africa has been active, with several inoculant companies actively exploring ways of expanding their markets in Africa.
Demonstration of best practices with the Tikolore soyabean variety in Dedza District, Malawi. Photo: Ken Giller
Despite increased availability of inoculants in all the countries that N2Africa worked in, some challenges remain. Shortcomings in manufacturing, distribution and storage of inoculant products may undermine quality standards and reduce farmers’ confidence in inoculant technologies. Furthermore, rhizobia are living organisms that require careful handling. N2Africa has made efforts to train distributors, extension workers and farmers to handle the inoculant products properly.
Improved just-in-time logistics
Matching supply to demand at the right time is critical too. Farmers typically wait until planting time to place their inoculant orders, whereas inoculant companies cannot supply the product at such short notice. Agro-dealers and inoculant companies are reluctant to stockpile inoculants close to the market in anticipation of demand because of the limited shelf life. Companies run the risk of being left with unsold packs that cannot be reused the following season. Better coordination of demand from farmers’ groups could solve this issue, as well as improved just-in-time logistics and production planning by the inoculant producers.
* K.E. Giller, Nitrogen Fixation in Tropical Cropping Systems (2nd ed.), CAB International, Wallingford (2001).
- Rhizobial inoculants are now registered and marketed in all the countries where N2Africa has been active, with several inoculant companies actively exploring ways of expanding their markets in Africa.
- Matching supply to demand at the right time is critical for inoculants. Because of the limited shelf life, agro-input dealers are reluctant to stockpile inoculants close to the market.
Video: Extension workers demonstrate how to apply inoculants to soyabean seed in Kenya. Produced by Taskscape Associates