AFRICA – The Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One) has awarded a U.S$35 million grant to a Cambridge University-led project to create self-fertilizing crops for African farmers.

The U.S$35 million grant will fund the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) research program over the next five years.

ENSA is a Cambridge-led international partnership with partners from 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 Paul Sabatier, France; University of Illinois, USA; Pennsylvania State University, USA.

According to a statement, in order to decrease the requirement for fertilizer, the research consortium focuses on enhancing nutrient uptake by food plants.

ENSA scientists are breeding plants to maximize the naturally occurring processes in which fungi and bacteria help crops to convert more nutrients from the soil.

“The pioneering work of ENSA is crucial to leveling 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 delighted that Gates Ag One can support ENSA to continue its work to meet the needs of smallholder farmers,” said Joe Cornelius, Chief Executive Officer of Gates Ag One.

Giles Oldroyd, Director of the Crop Science Centre and Russell R Geiger, Professor of Crop Science, added that African agriculture is at an inflection point, with vastly increasing demand at a time when supply is at risk, especially due to a changing climate.

“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 production of crops sustainably in smallholder farming systems, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, directly addresses some of the worst poverty on the planet,” he said.

As much as 65% of productive land in Africa is considered degraded, according to the UN, which means crop yields are only around a third of the global average.

Fertilizer is often a costly and inaccessible resource for many smallholder farmers in Africa, which accounts for just 4% of global fertilizer consumption and relies heavily on exports from Russia, while the ongoing war in Ukraine has driven up prices by up to 150%.

To this end, the organization notes that developing crops with greater ability to take in nutrients through natural processes would therefore automatically increase yields without the need for fertilizer.

Gates Ag One recently announced a grant for the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency project, including Cambridge University as a collaborator

ENSA is the most recent scientific endeavor to get financing from this organization.

Gates Ag One, a non-profit division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was established to use crop science from around the world to meet the needs of smallholder farmers in South Asia and Africa.

Its main objective is to expedite biological process improvements for six priority food crops: cassava, cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum, and soybean.

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