How Doing Agronomy At Scale Could Close Yield Gaps In Smallholder Farms In Africa
In our series of early career researchers’ stories, today, we present Adnan Aminu Adnan, who is a Lecturer in the Department of Agronomy of Bayero University Kano, Researcher at the Center for Dryland Agriculture, Bayero University Kano and currently completing his PhD in Bio-Science Engineering from Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) Belgium.
I am currently working on the use of crop simulation models to match maize varieties to different soils and agro-climatic conditions and recommend optimum stand density of maize in Sudan and Northern Guinea Savannas of Nigeria. My other interests include exploring sugar-induced defense for improvement of tolerance to drought and heat stress in dryland crops.
Tell us about your research in layman's language
Crop scientists are required to make large-scale, multi-locational experiments before they can recommend newly developed agricultural technologies. Due to the difficulty in achieving this requirement, most recommendations to farmers are done via a blanket approach. A typical example is the recommended fertilizer application for maize in Nigeria which is 120 Kg Nitrogen, 60 Kg Phosphorus and 60 Kg Potassium per hectare from the forest regions of south-western Nigeria to the dry savannas of the north irrespective of soil and climatic variations and difference in varietal characteristics. Crop models are suits of mathematical equations that are developed to mimic actual real-life outputs. A well-calibrated model contains observed values of weather variables, soil characteristics, and crop measurements from actual experiments. The models are trained/calibrated with observed measurements from experiments, and they could then be used to predict responses in areas where experiments were not conducted. With a well-calibrated model, it is possible to generate recommendations that are specific to sites and locations thereby reducing production costs and improving yields.
During the course of my research, I have collected weather data for over 60 years across 10 locations in the maize production belts of Nigeria. I have also collected over 200 soil samples and planted 24 maize varieties in over 120 farmers’ fields and 6 research stations in 3 years. I have used the data to calibrate and validate my models and used the model outputs to recommend site-specific nitrogen fertilizer recommendations, appropriate dates for the sowing of maize and optimum sowing density that is specific to the available varieties. I intend to use the model to provide a site and region-specific recommendation of appropriate varieties that have specific characters which are unique to specific regions. These varieties could be early, extra-early and drought tolerant for the dryer areas, they could also be tolerant to Striga infestations and low-nitrogen contents in soils. Site and location-specific agronomic recommendations could lead to a monumental increase in maize output thereby improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers.
What do you enjoy about your research and what is it about the field that excites you?
I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of my research. The fact that one must have knowledge of not just plant physiology, crop production techniques, soil science and meteorology but also have a working knowledge of GIS, mathematics and statistics make it exciting. I also enjoy seeing observed events like plant height, the number of leaves and grain yield properly dissected into 1s and 0s and having meaning.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I never envisioned myself as a scientist, as a kid I wanted to be a fiction writer. My interest in the plant sciences was developed from detailed observation of leaves and the fact that I always wanted to understand the concept of photosynthesis.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing scientists and their work in Nigeria?
The biggest challenge to science in Nigeria, in my opinion, is the absence of adequate state-of-the-art equipment and robust funding for the conduct of meaningful research. Also, the nonchalant attitude of the government to research is a major issue. The fact that most of the researches conducted do not fall under the much-needed research for development (R4D) makes most funding agencies and industries to be skeptical in funding researches in the country. Shortage of mentors and mentorship programs for early career scientists as well as upcoming student scientists has a diminishing effect on already existing scientific interests.
What about science would you want to see done differently in Nigeria?
I would love to see science done with a passion for human development not just as a job. I would love to see Nigerian scientists genuinely viewing themselves as thinkers and problem solvers with a genuine interest in solving the problems of the society and creating a healthy, wealthy and sustainable environment for themselves and the future generation.
Is there a Nigerian or African scientist working today who you admire and why?
I admire Professor Jibrin M. Jibrin the current Director of Center for Dryland Agriculture for his commitment to improving the quality of research via diligent efforts towards provision of functional equipment and facilities. I also admire him for his leadership style and mentorship strategies that has provided tremendous opportunities to numerous early career scientists.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I will probably be a fiction writer, a poet, or a musician.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
The development of the semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat, rice and maize by Norman Borlaug which triggered the green revolution in Asia and the Americas, saving billions of lives from starvation, ranks high as a scientific discovery.
Aspiration – What do you aspire to do next?
Continue research on molecular aspects of stress tolerance in dryland crops while expanding my current research to cover other important crops.
A few words of advice for aspiring scientists
Perseverance is the key-word in science. You will always get the urge to quit especially when you keep coming across negative results, the zeal to hold on must be very strong.
What you wish to tell the public?
Contrary to popular belief, science is not just serious and important, it is also fun and enjoyable. Through science, one can build bridges and demolish barriers and at the same time make everlasting contributions to society.
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