New Hope for Old Farmland
When BIOFIX®, a legume inoculant that increases plants’ natural nitrogen fixation, was first developed in the 1970s at the University of Nairobi, Sub-Saharan Africa was already a continent of smallholder farmers in need of more fertile soil. Today, that is still the case, but even more so. The land these farmers rely on for their livelihood has become badly degraded, lacking sufficient nutrients to support good crop growth. With a full three quarters of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa severely depleted, the demand for products that restore soil fertility without the need for expensive fertilizers that add to water and other pollution is greater than ever. Innovative products like Biofix can help meet this demand, but in order for them to help, they must get to the farmers that need them.
Developed specifically for legumes, such as beans, cowpeas, and groundnuts, growing in sub-Saharan soil, Biofix enhances the legumes’ natural nitrogen fixation and thereby reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers, which many farmers cannot afford. This natural, affordable product is the only one of its kind in East Africa and has the potential to double crop yields for Kenya’s 30 million smallholder farmers.
Despite the clear need for products that address Kenya’s soil degradation, though, the inoculant was not sold commercially until 2007 when MEA Ltd., a Kenyan fertilizer company, won a bid to license and produce it. However, even with MEA making the product available, most of the Kenyan farmers who wanted the product still could not get it. MEA was using a labor-intensive, multi-step process to produce and package Biofix, and this process, with its 21-day production period, simply did not allow the company to meet the demand.
Now, with the support of Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, MEA is increasing the amount of Biofix on the market by 50 percent by reducing production time from 21 to seven days. As the product’s availability increased, the backlog of demand is going down along with prices. Moreover, Biofix is now available in a wider range of quantities in ten, 20, and 50 gram packages, making it more adaptable to Kenya’s widely varying farm sizes. In addition to increasing the product’s supply, MEA is also setting up demonstration plots, and providing farmer training and aftersales support. With Partnering for Innovation’s support, MEA plans to reach more than 50,000 Kenyan farmers on nearly 25,000 acres of land by 2016.
Science and innovation create products that can increase agricultural opportunities for smallholder farmers, but for these products to be truly effective, they must also be commercially viable and accessible to the farmers that need them. With Biofix, the connection between science and business is bringing smallholder farmers in Africa new hope for old farmland.