Translating Efforts from Laboratories to Fields

By Alex Tung

Farming on a limited budget in the harsh conditions of the dry tropics is tough business. A farmer may often experience low yield, or incur unnecessary costs and losses, especially if they have little knowledge of suitable methods for managing their land.  But thanks to the growth of laboratories that conduct extensive analysis on essential agricultural components such as soil and food crops, farmers in semi-arid countries including Niger can have the information needed to optimize the use of available resources in cultivating and managing their land.

Thanks to the growth of laboratories that conduct extensive analysis on essential agricultural components such as soil and food crops, farmers in semi-arid countries including Niger can have the information needed to optimize the use of available resources in cultivating and managing their land. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The Analytical Services Laboratory of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), located outside Niamey, Niger focuses on soil and plant analysis in the context of agriculture. Now in its 25th year of operation, the lab has reached the capacity of 60,000 analyses, four times the original number 20 years ago.

Ilyassou Oumarou, Senior Laboratory Supervisor of the ICRISAT analytical lab explains how soil analysis can benefit smallholder farmers:

“Our analytical services…[include] soil analysis for characterization, identifying nutrient constraints, and establishing criteria for fertilizer application and efficient nutrient use, along with water, plant, and fertilizer analysis,” says Mr. Oumarou. “In the past 10-15 years, farmers in Niger are not interested in the fertility of their soils. Nowadays, they are becoming more and more interested in having soil analytical results in view of fertilizer application.”

Working on a “first-come, first served basis,” the lab analyzes samples for ICRISAT affiliates including  International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Niamey, International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC)-Togo and World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), to name a few. External organizations such as Biodiversity International, AFRICARE and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also commission the lab for special projects.

The services it provides benefit not only organizations and farmers in the area – aspiring soil scientists come from research institutes and universities in Japan, Belgium, Switzerland, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire to seek practical training opportunities at the lab. Through their training program, the lab also helps national programs laboratories, such as the National Agricultural Research Institute in Niamey (INRAN) to improve the quality of their analytical services.

Despite having limited funds and a small staff, Mr. Oumarou says they are striving to “upgrade the quality of the laboratory.” He hopes the Analytical Services Laboratory will soon extend its research capabilities to include “vegetables, food and water quality analyses.” Crop analysis can help farmers adopt appropriate food production technologies and strategies to prevent losses post harvest.

And this work has already begun elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.  At their laboratories located in Kabete, Thika, Muguga North and South, Embu and Kisii, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) provides a broad range of analytical services on soils, food crops, water, animal feeds and animal disease diagnoses.  Laboratories that address animal related issues, unfortunately, don’t receive as much funding as those that address crop issues. According to the FAO, nearly 105 million people in the region depend on livestock as a source of income and food, and pastoralists and their herds are frequently under stress from diseases and drought.

While there are “inherent weaknesses” in the current system such as the need for accreditation to international standards of analytical services, Mr. Oumarou sees “an increased role for laboratory analysis” in the research and development programs of international centers like ICRISAT. He predicts a “shift” in future programs towards an emphasis on addressing environment concerns.

To learn more about recent developments in agricultural research, read Organic Agriculture and Genetic Engineering Work Together In Surprising Ways, New Cassava Varieties Save Zanzibar’s Food Security, and Livestock Experts Tackle Disease Outbreaks and Biodiversity Loss.  Check out our Flickr photostream to see snapshots from recent field visits with ICRISAT in Niger.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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