Scholar works to improve soil fertility in Ghana

posted on September 5, 2017 9:20am

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Declining soil fertility, and the resultant threat to food security, is a major problem in Africa. Edward Martey is studying ways to tackle the problem in his home country of Ghana.

Martey, pictured at right with soybean farmers in northern Ghana, is a scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, seeking a Ph.D. in agricultural economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

Martey’s work on soil fertility ties in with the work of development organizations like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which is promoting integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) packages for Ghanaian smallholder farmers. ISFMs are designed to maximize the efficiency of nutrient use and to improve agricultural productivity.

Lack of soil fertility is especially acute in northern Ghana, where 80 percent of the population engages in subsistence farming. Their productivity and incomes are low, and their use of inputs is limited due to high costs. Recent population increases have put more pressure on the soil, as well.

The goal of Martey’s research, the first of its kind in northern Ghana, is to help farmers, policymakers and development practicioners find the most cost-effective ISFM packages.

On another front, Martey is studying Ghanaian soybean production, which grew 16% from 2002 to 2014 and is projected to keep growing. The growth is attributed to greater planted area, improved varieties and the technical support of USAID’s Soybean Innovation Lab. Northern Ghana contributes about 77 percent of the country’s soybeans.

Martey wants to close the information gap between the production and marketing ends of the soybean value chain, a gap that often results in trade losses for producers. Farmers don’t always understand the soybean attributes traders are looking for, and the ways they value those attributes. Martey’s goal is for the preferred soybean attributes of farmers, breeders, traders and marketers to line up, boosting profits and efficiency for all parties.

His soybean study combined multiple information-gathering techniques, including focus group discussions, personal interviews, crop participation trials and experimental auctions. The crop trials were conducted with two groups of farmers – participants and non-participants – to ascertain the effect participation plays on choosing varieties.

Martey plans to return to Ghana in August 2018, where he will continue his Ph.D. research as a scientist with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He plans to keep working with breeders and agronomists to develop improved soybean varieties and to promote ISFM technologies. In addition, he will focus on strengthening established innovation platforms in northern Ghana, and on strengthening collaboration between the University of Illinois and CSIR.

– Matt Milkovich