Farmer-driven Organic Resource Management to Build Soil Fertility (ORM4Soil)
Enforced organic matter production by modern agroforestry systems, as well as the use of mulch and compost have shown to increase and maintain soil fertility. Yet these techniques have failed to be implemented in farmers’ cropping systems on a large scale. The ORM4Soil project identifies the agronomic, socio-economic, cultural, and communicative reasons that promote the adoption of tested agricultural technologies.
About the project
Soil degradation – loss of soil through erosion and loss of soil fertility – is a major threat to agricultural production worldwide and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where it is more directly linked to the food security of local populations. Expansion and intensification of agriculture in an effort to feed the growing population exposed soils to extreme weather conditions leading to erosion, a decrease in organic matter content and the depletion of soil fertility in general. Soil fertility is the inherent capacity of a soil to support plant growth and is often confounded with the response of crops to mineral fertilizers. Soil is deemed fertile if it comprises an active biological community, a good soil structure, and a typical composition and pedological horizons in addition to its capacity to allow for undisturbed growth of natural and agricultural plants.
Up to the early part of 20th century, shifting cultivation and fallow periods were used to rebuild soil fertility, but rapid population growth has made this practice impossible. Management of soil fertility then shifted to the use of mineral fertilizer, improving crop productivity while dismissing soil fertility build-up. Many attempts to introduce effective technologies have failed, apparently because they were not sufficiently adapted to the societal, agronomic, socio- economic, political and technological settings on African farms.
Soil fertility management innovations are often developed and implemented within the framework of funded projects. Too often, after the project ends, farmers return to their traditional ways of production, with a generally very low innovation uptake.
At times, innovations that work well on experimental plots or farmer fields also fail to perform on other farms. This calls for investigations on the agronomic, socio-economic and communication factors in different countries and ecological zones in order to properly understand the local contexts so that appropriate technologies to build soil fertility and safeguard the endangered soil resources for present use and for the needs of future generations can be promoted.
The project aims at identifying practicable solutions that help farmers to build soil fertility. Innovations developed jointly by farmers and researchers will be tested and evaluated for their potential to be adopted by more farmers. Reasons for success or failure of previous attempts to improve soil fertility within farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa will be evaluated. We assume that the active participation of farmers in cooperation with national, regional and local institutions is necessary to improve and stabilise soils and last but not least the livelihood of the rural population. Building on the ideas and demands of small-scale farmers, on-farm research activities, developed jointly with farmers, will show which of the innovative techniques has a good potential to be taken up.
Analysing both the socio-political context and the ways farmers generate knowledge, receive information and learn how to manage their fields will then allow to learn how adapted new technologies can be implemented. This will be done by calling in innovation platforms that integrate all societal stakeholders (including farmers) in order to find ways to work for better soil fertility management and by producing better targeted information on practicable and timely recommendations. These processes will be intensively investigated.
Instigating the interaction between farmers may help building rural fora for exchange on fruitful soil and crop management but also on ways to recognize maladjusted techniques.
Agronomists, soil scientists, social and communication scientists will work in an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the technical, societal and communication settings in which farmers are embedded. The active participation of farmers and advisors in this research project and the comparative analysis of their societal and political environment may allow identifying the complex network of dependencies.
The study is expected to improve research design, provide easily adoptable soil fertility management techniques, address institutional barriers and soil governance, change habits and attitudes of farmers and local society towards agricultural sustainability, and identify the best processes of communication according to farmers' needs. It is further expected that our inter- and trans-disciplinary approach applied in the four countries will be scalable to the whole Sub-Saharan Africa. This ambitious project has the potential to contribute significantly to the resilience of food systems, agricultural productivity, environmental stability, and food security.
Highlights and most important results
The project is on target with the identification of the challenges farmers face concerning soil fertility and the design and implementation of on-station and on-farm agronomic trials based on the experiences and priorities of farmers. A baseline survey with 600 interviewees in each country was completed and the large dataset is currently being evaluated. Additionally, the innovation platforms have been set up, and are now on their way to identify better solutions for enhancing soil fertility.
Thus, the project proceeds with the study of socio-economic and cultural-political hindrances to soil fertility and on additional communication patterns. These insights, as well as the results from the agronomic trials, will contribute to the communication campaign, to be conducted in 2018, and the end line survey in 2019. At this stage, it will be possible to assess in what way has the intervention of the project - new agronomic results, better understanding of social hindrances to soil fertility, better communication with farmers and the intervention on political level - led to the better adoption of soil fertility enhancing techniques.
The most important result so far is that new techniques are seen by farmers in a multiple way. It looks that new techniques – to be adapted – need not only to enhance soil fertility, they also need to be profitable (considering labour costs and market value), which requires that market access, prospects for more attractive farming conditions and success is improved in parallel.
Project website and links to P3
- Link to ORM4Soil project website
- Links to project phase 1 (2015-2017) and project phase 2 (2018-2021) on SNSF research database P3