A farming technique developed by scientists to help small-scale farmers in the semi-arid Sahel region boost their crop yields is being introduced to poor farmers in East and South Africa. It is hoped that boosting yields through better techniques and more crop varieties will help bring down skyrocketing food and fertilizer prices on the continent and alleviate hunger and poverty. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Researchers at the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, better known by its acronym ICRISAT, say 25,000 small-scale farmers in West Africa are thriving, using the technique known as fertilizer micro-dosing.

Results in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso show that micro-dosing has the potential to help farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa increase their crop yields as much as 120 percent and boost household incomes 50 to 130 percent.

Micro-dosing involves nourishing seeds with tiny amounts of strategically-applied fertilizer. About six grams of fertilizer is applied to each seed, which means that a farmer with 100 hectares of land would only need half as much fertilizer to grow the same amount of crops as before.

ICRISAT's Assistant Director for West and Central Africa, Ramadjita Tabo, says having to use less fertilizer is a critical element for farmers here because fertilizer costs two to six times more in sub-Saharan Africa than the rest of the world. Prices are high largely because of low volume, high transportation costs, and because there is little or no local production. "You dig the hole first, you put fertilizer in, and you plant your seed there and the fertilizer is right by the seed, so it is available to the plant when it really needs it. It does help the farmer reduce the cost of input and at the same time increase his yield," he said.

ICRISAT estimates that land degradation due to overuse is affecting more than half of sub-Saharan Africa, leading to a yearly loss of more than five million hectares of farm land and some $42 billion in income. Small farmers often abandon unproductive fields and clear forests for farming, a practice that has been blamed for causing massive deforestation throughout the continent and contributing to global warming.

Through the help of government and non-governmental agencies and private foundations, Tabo says about 200,000 farmers in East and southern Africa have been shown how micro-dosing works. But to make micro-dosing feasible on a much wider scale, INCRISAT says it is now lobbying to make fertilizers available to farmers in smaller bags.

"In the past, you only get those big 50 kilogram bags, which cost probably $20, $25, or $30. And small-scale farmers just cannot go and buy that. So, we are pushing in eastern and southern Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and in West Africa, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, to see whether they can just sell small packs of fertilizer, maybe about two kilograms or four kilograms, which the farmer can take to his field and use it.

Fertilizer micro-dosing in West Africa is currently used on cereal crops such as sorghum, millet and maize. ICRISAT, which is one of 15 research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, says studies are being carried out to determine whether micro-dosing can also be effective for growing beans and vegetables.