Biofertilizer and intercropping technologies: facilitating agroecological transition in Benin
Gone are the days when soybean was considered an orphan crop in Benin. Just a decade ago, Beninese universities and research institutions, working with the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, introduced farmers to biofertilizers and intercropping practice to improve soil fertility and quality to boost soybean and cereal production. By demonstration plots, farmers observed and adopted the technologies. Benin saw its soybean production increase from 57 000 tons in 2009 to 220 000 tons in 2019 – enough to take soybean from orphan crop to export crop. The intercropping practice greatly boosted the cereal yields by 30% to 50%. The good practice has also been well expanded to other neighbour countries.
Over the centuries, farmers have known that if they grow certain legume crops in one season, the soil will be better for their grain crops in the next season. Today this is more than indigenous knowledge. Science has found that when legumes are harvested, they leave nitrogen-rich residues in the soil. The residue decomposes as a natural fertilizer to nourish the next crop. The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre introduced biofertilizer to soybean production in Benin. A biofertilizer contains specific bacteria needed for the Benin soybean field conditions, that induce soybean to produce nodules on their roots and those nodules “fix or capture” the nitrogen from the air. Additionally, intercropping soybean with no-legumes was also introduced to increase the productivity of cereal crops. The technologies also helped agroecology transition in Benin.
Benin is facing the challenge of food insecurity and degradation of natural resources including soil, which is directly related to SDGs 1, 2, 3, 10 and 13. Through use of biofertilizer in combination with intercropping farming, support from the FAO/IAEA Centre greatly boosted the production of soybean and cereal crops, increased farmers’ income, promoted soybean from orphan crop to export crop, facilitated consumers’ access to plant-based protein, and contributed to the Government’s strategy of reducing food imports and fostering value addition for enhanced competitiveness.
The project was implemented in 3 phases. Phase 1 (2009-2012) focused on introducing the methodology of isolating specific bacteria in the laboratory needed for legume roots to produce nodules that fix nitrogen to produce biofertilizers at University of Abomey Calavi (UAC). Researchers were trained on the use of N-15 techniques to evaluate the amount of atmospheric N fixed by soybean varieties and to select the best varieties. Selected farmers (50) were trained on how to apply the biofertilizers and few demonstration plots were established. Contribution from the IAEA technical cooperation project (TCP) is €152,645. Phase 2 (2012-2017] focused on training more farmers on the technology and liaised with the National Agriculture Institute (INRAB) to assist establishing more demonstration plots and the distributing more biofertilizers in different agroecological systems. Based on the demonstration plots about 10,000 farmers adopted the technology. Government of Benin supports a laboratory that produces the inoculum locally and makes it available to farmers. Farmers realized 50% increase in yield of maize with high N fixing soybeans without N fertilizers when soybean was incorporated in maize-based cropping system. Contribution from the IAEA’s TCP is €254,442. Phase 3 (2018-2020) trained 5,000 farmers and collaboration with Sojagnon Association, a local NGO promoted the agricultural development of Benin by improving the value chain for soybean, and the Green Innovation Centre for the Agri-Food Sector in Benin have helped bring Benin’s soybean product to export markets. Contribution from the IAEA’s TCP is €230,615. Monitoring and evaluation of the project was jointly done by the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre and the socio-economic division of INRAB.
The projects greatly boosted the productivity of soybean and cereal crops in Benin. The yields of soybean almost quadrupled from 2009 to 2019, and cereal yields increased by 30% to 50%. It is estimated that farmers save a cumulative USD 4 million on fertilizer costs each year, which speed up the pace of agroecology transition in Benin. The projects not only improved the income of smallholder farmers but also facilitated the soybean industry development, taking soybean from orphan crop to export crop. Benin now exports 40,000 tons of soybean with a value of USD 19 million each year. Furthermore, consumption of soybean increased from 62,700 tons in 2010 to 182,300 tons, promoting consumers’ access to nutritious food with plant-based protein. Moreover, it is important that farmers were accompanied in the whole process by public decision-makers and other stakeholders, such as research institutions and NGOs. Additionally, this success has been transferred to neighbour countries.
Cooperation and support from governmental authorities, universities and research institutions is of great importance. Pilot project to demonstrate the technologies to farmers through participatory approaches is key. Partnerships with other stakeholders such as local NGOs, international research institutions and development agencies from other countries are very helpful. The following factors need to be considered to upscale this good practice further, including ensuring fairly distribution and efficacy of the biofertilizers during storage at distribution centers; availability of seeds for farmers; post-harvest losses during storage.
Close partnerships with governmental authorities, universities and research institutions to enhance their awareness and capacity in using the new technologies are key to the sustainability of the project. The Ministry of Agriculture disseminated the technology and information to more than 15,000 farmers, which is fundamental for the achievement of the success, and provides safeguards to its continuity through training of trainers (ToT) and farmer field school approaches. Benin scientists are passing on their knowledge, conducting training in neighbour countries, while countries such as Chad, Niger and Haiti have sent trainees to Benin for hands-on training.
In Benin, soybeans are harvested in September-October. Thus, Benin soybeans for 2019/2020 crop year were harvested before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and therefore there were no pandemic related disruptions to the project. However, the harvested area and yield by farmers could be slightly affected for 2020/2021 planting season. Possible mitigation measures could be government subsidies on the price of biofertilizers and seeds for planting to farmers.
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This practice has been passing to other neighbour countries, such as Chad, Niger and Haiti.