‘In the end, it’s all about the farmers’

Photography: Taskscape Media

Over the past ten years, N2Africa has helped smallholders in Africa towards a better future: higher yields, better access to quality seeds and a healthier diet. N2Africa has achieved a lot, but the work is far from done, says project leader Ken Giller. “All farmers deserve the opportunity to improve their food security and economic position.”

In 2007, Ken Giller, a professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), was at a congress in Arusha (Northern Tanzania) to give a lecture about soil fertility and the problems in the production of legumes.

For more than 35 years, the British professor has been fascinated by the problems faced by smallholders in developing countries. He worked earlier in Asia and Latin America before focusing for the past 30 years on Africa south of the Sahara. Before joining WUR, Giller spent several years as a professor at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

After his speech, a member of the audience came up to him and asked if he remembered her.
“It turned out I had taught her during her MSc at the University of London some 20 years before,” says Giller. “She remembered me as a young teacher enthusiastically lecturing on nitrogen fixation in legumes.”

Giller’s former student was working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a senior project manager.
“We talked for a long time about what nitrogen fixation could do for smallholders in Africa.”
The conversation was the start of a two-year process in which Ken Giller worked with many researchers from Africa and elsewhere to identify priorities. They wrote a plan together that eventually became N2Africa.

Over the past ten years N2Africa has received USD 52 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest grant ever for WUR. N2Africa ended in 2019 and several evaluation reports are currently underway.

Prof Ken Giller at a climbing bean trial at Selian Research Station, Arusha, northern Tanzania.

What exactly is N2Africa all about?

“N2Africa is a long-term development and research project with the aim of improving the quality and yields of grain legume crops and thereby strengthening the economic position of smallholder farmers.

“The unique thing about legumes is that they can fix nitrogen from the air in symbiosis with rhizobial bacteria, truly one of the most amazing biological processes! Nitrogen is needed for the growth and development of all crops. More fixed nitrogen means better yields.

Video I EAT : In the Maigana community in Nigeria, Ken Giller gets shown legumes for home consumption and their preparation. Produced by Taskscape Associates

“We investigate how we can boost nitrogen fixation to improve the production and quality of grain legumes such as beans, groundnuts, soyabeans and chickpeas. Legumes are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins and are therefore an important food for human nutrition.

‘Legumes can fix nitrogen from the air in symbiosis with rhizobial bacteria, truly one of the most amazing biological processes’

“Growing the legumes improves soil fertility and increases yields of crops grown after the legume such as maize. And as harvests improve, so does the economic situation of the small farmers, through sales in markets.”

Was this a dream come true for you as a researcher?

“I’ve been intrigued by the ingenious biochemical system of the nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between legumes and rhizobia all my scientific life. I actually had the title of the project in my head for years: N2Africa - Putting nitrogen fixation to work for smallholder farmers in Africa.

“It’s important for me that my work has added value. And I saw that my research on this subject could do so much for smallholders in Africa. And then this grant came along from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That was when I was able to give my life’s work that added value. It was truly a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.”

Women carrying the bean harvest home, DRC. Photo: Ken Giller

How did you proceed?

“We first carried out an intensive analysis of the eleven countries in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the climate and soil conditions, in relation to the type of legumes to be cultivated, population density and infrastructure in rural areas. And, of course, we looked at whether markets were accessible for farmers.

“We sought cooperation with local partners and set up information campaigns, gave courses in rural areas on how inoculants work, how to use them and how to sow in the right way. And together with farmers, we created thousands of legume test plots so that we could work with them to find out which seed varieties – in combination with inoculants and sometimes specific fertilizers – gave the best results in terms of yield and quality.

Video I STORE: Ken Giller visits Amarawa community where a farmer shows him how they store legumes. Produced by Taskscape Associates

“In each of the eleven countries, we worked with at least thirty organizations in public-private partnerships – researchers, government representatives, cooperatives, seed and inoculant producers, advisers and NGOs and national and international research institutions such as the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). In the end, it was (and still is) about the farmers. In total, we have now reached more than 660,000 farmers, and those partnerships have been crucial in achieving this.”

So not only farmers benefited from N2Africa. Supply companies such as seed breeders and inoculant developers also earned money from this project?

“Well, it was important for us not to give everything away for free to farmers. They had to invest themselves, because that’s how you make lasting changes. In the first years we gave demonstrations to show what the effect of inoculants was when combined with good seeds. You have to remember that those farmers had never heard of inoculants before. We’re talking about poor farmers who in some countries had hardly any education. They also had little financial leeway. So you understand they’re not going to buy something they don’t know. We were able to use the demonstrations to show that inoculants generate higher yields.”

You’ve reached 660,000 farmers – that’s an impressive number. How do you reach the ones with small businesses in remote areas?

“In northern Ghana, for instance, we worked with people we refer to as ‘lead farmers’. These are farmers who we’ve trained in applying inoculants and good agricultural practice. These lead farmers pass on their knowledge to other farmers.

Video I SELL: Villagers in North Nigeria tell Ken Giller how their legume grains are sold at local markets. Produced by Taskscape Associates

“In Tanzania, we worked together with a consortium of partners such as Farm Radio International, which makes broadcasts educational programmes aimed specifically at farmers. In agro-dealer shops, we put up posters with information and we trained the shopkeepers so that they could advise farmers on the use of inoculants and fertilizers.

“In Ethiopia, smallholder farmers are often members of cooperatives. The farmers are well organized there. It is then easy to reach a large group at once, since the farmers meet regularly.”

Women’s empowerment received special attention within N2Africa. Why?

“Women often do the heavy work, such as weeding by hand and grinding corn, as well as being responsible for the home. In addition they usually grow food on a piece of land for their own consumption and take care of the children. So relieving the burden on women by using herbicides and post-harvest mechanisation, for example, is also an important aspect of the project.

Women winnowing soyabeans in North Kivu, DRC. Photo: Ken Giller

“We found that direct extension with women farmers led to increases in legume consumption by the family – which did not happen through extension with the male family members. N2Africa received a prize for this work in 2013.”

Now, after ten years, the N2Africa project is coming to an end. Does it feel like all the work is done, too? Or is there still plenty to do?

“Yes, there are more than enough things that need to be improved. Two things come to mind immediately.

“We have shown that improving legume production and soil fertility results in higher yields for farmers. But the spread of that knowledge and the availability of inoculant, good seeds and specific fertilizers are not happening fast enough. We mustn’t underestimate how difficult it is to set up a functioning value chain.

“In every rural district in Africa, there are some thirty or forty thousand farmers. So we’re talking about millions of farmers in total! You need information campaigns for the millions who are not well-educated, with few resources to invest. The roads are often bad and (as I said earlier) the availability of inputs hasn’t yet been sorted. That’s what we really need to focus on now, so that every farmer has the opportunity to improve their food security and economic position.

“And I’m worried about the rate of development in the rural areas. I see that governments are mainly investing in urban centres. So what we need to do is to convince governments of the importance of developing sound policies for small-scale agriculture in rural areas and assist them in doing so. This is important not only for these countries but (I would venture to say) also for the whole world.

About rhizobia and nitrogen fixation

Every organism needs nitrogen for growth and development. It is the basis of amino acids that in turn are the building blocks of proteins and it is also present in DNA.

Video I UNDERSTAND: N2Africa promotes better local understanding among smallholders of how nitrogen fixation works. Produced by Taskscape Associates

“I work on the Sustainable Development Goals with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. One of the key goals is that there will be no more malnutrition and hunger by 2030. I know that 820 million people are still suffering from malnutrition at this moment. Zero hunger is an ambitious plan. With N2Africa, I believe we have made a small contribution to achieving this.”

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