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'Gates Ag One' Invests in Project to Create Self-Fertilizing Crops for African Farmers

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One) programme has awarded a USD 35 million grant to a Cambridge University-led project to develop self-fertilizing crops for African farmers.

Shivam Dwivedi
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established Gates Ag One to use crop science from around the world to meet the needs of smallholder farmers in South Asia & Africa
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established Gates Ag One to use crop science from around the world to meet the needs of smallholder farmers in South Asia & Africa

The research consortium is focusing on improving nutrient uptake by food plants in order to reduce the need for fertilizer. Plants are being bred by ENSA scientists to maximize naturally occurring processes in which fungi and bacteria assist crops in converting more nutrients from the soil.


Over the next five years, the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) research programme will be funded with a US$35 million grant. ENSA is a Cambridge-led international partnership with partners from the University of Oxford, UK; NIAB, UK; Royal Holloway University of London, UK; Aarhus University, Denmark; Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands; University of Freiburg, Germany; University of Toulouse III, France; and the University of Cambridge, UK. Paul Sabatier of France; University of Illinois of America; and Pennsylvania State University of America.

"The pioneering work of ENSA is crucial to levelling the playing field for smallholder farmers in Africa, harnessing the most recent crop technology to guarantee that all communities have the potential to succeed. Breakthrough advances in crop science and innovation mean intractable challenges like nutrient uptake and soil health need not hold back agricultural development. We're thrilled that Gates Ag One can help ENSA continue its work to meet the needs of smallholder farmers," said Joe Cornelius, CEO of Gates Ag One.


Giles Oldroyd, Director of the Crop Science Centre, and Russell R Geiger, Professor of Crop Science, both added that African agriculture is at a tipping point, with rapidly increasing demand at a time when supply is under threat, owing to climate change. "The outcomes of this work have the potential to see gains as great as those from the Green Revolution, but without relying on costly and polluting inorganic fertilizers. "Increasing crop production sustainably in smallholder farming systems like those in Sub-Saharan Africa directly addresses some of the world's worst poverty," he said.

According to the UN, up to 65% of Africa's productive land is considered degraded, implying crop yields are only about a third of the global average. Fertilizer is frequently an expensive and inaccessible resource for many smallholder farmers in Africa, which accounts for only 4% of global fertilizer consumption and relies heavily on Russian exports, with prices rising by up to 150% due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

To that end, the organization observes that developing crops with a greater ability to absorb nutrients through natural processes would result in increased yields without the use of fertilizer. The Gates Ag One Foundation recently announced a grant for the project Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, which includes Cambridge University as a collaborator. This organization's most recent scientific endeavour to receive funding is ENSA.


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established Gates Ag One, a non-profit division, to use crop science from around the world to meet the needs of smallholder farmers in South Asia and Africa. Its primary goal is to accelerate the development of biological processes for six priority food crops: cassava, cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum, and soybean.


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