Roy Steiner: As fertiliser deficit bites, let’s adopt nitrogen-fixing legumes

Roy Steiner

Dr Roy Steiner, Rockefeller Foundation’s vice-president for the Food Initiative.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In 2006, The Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra). Last month, the institution changed its strategy in response to changing realities in the continent’s agricultural systems. Our correspondent Julius Sigei spoke to Dr Roy Steiner, Rockefeller Foundation’s vice-president for the Food Initiative and a member of the board of AGRA on what the change of course means for the continent and farmers


The Rockefeller Foundation has announced a shift towards regenerative agriculture. How will the Foundation align its restorative agriculture agenda with that of Agra moving forward?

Our Good Food strategy, launched earlier this year, supports transitioning to a food system that is nutritious, regenerative, and equitable, and that decarbonises agriculture. We recognise that this takes many forms. We support the focus in Agra’s new strategy on sustainability as well as inclusivity, and its intention to focus on diversifying crops to ensure the widespread availability of nutritious foods.

Today, our funding for Agra supports its emerging work in regenerative agriculture. At the same time, Agra is just one part of our total Good Food portfolio, which includes support for alternatives to fossil-fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides through the promotion of regenerative agricultural practices such as cultivation of nitrogen-fixing beans.

We are also prioritising other initiatives, including the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet) that aim to accelerate transitions to renewable energy in low and middle-income countries.

The Agra new strategy, and the conversations at African Green Revolution Forum 12 didn’t seem to signal a departure from the path of fossil-fuel fertiliser. How does this fit in Rockefeller Foundation’s new commitment to combating climate change?

Agra’s new strategy will inevitably be interpreted in various ways. What is most important is what it does — the actual implementation, particularly its success in working with farmers to adapt sustainable farming practices and climate-smart crop varieties and working with governments to promote food systems that are sustainable and inclusive.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s commitment to combating climate change extends across our organisation. The Good Food programme is thinking deeply about how best to address climate change in our work. We know that decarbonisation of food systems will require significant investments and development of renewable energy across the continent and reducing dependence on fossil-fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides, in tandem with promoting agricultural practices that improve soil health, conserve water, and promote equity and economic opportunity.

Would Rockefeller Foundation recommend a reduction of inorganic fertiliser on the African continent as part of its new commitment to combat climate change?

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most degraded and infertile soils on the planet, the least productive agriculture, and the least intensive use of inorganic fertiliser. Its farmers use, on average 17kg of nutrients/ha vis a vis a world average consumption of 135kg/ha.

This Russian/Ukrainian crisis has already reduced African small-scale farmers’ use of manufactured fertilisers, which could drive down food production by 20 per cent or more.

Therefore, we think it would be ill-advised to recommend further reductions of inorganic fertilisers by African farmers at present.

However, we do recommend the development and scaling up of alternatives to inorganic fertilisers, such as through cultivation of nitrogen-fixing legumes.

What specific shifts will change in Agra's approach to agricultural development, in light of the growing concerns about climate change?

Our interest is to listen to and work with anyone who shares our goals of making Africa’s food systems more resilient, sustainable and equitable. Agra’s new strategy provides some insights into this and is available on its website.