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Jul 1, 2022
Senegalese Plant Microbiologist’s Quest to Offer Smallholders a Solution for Soil Damage

Dr. Nogaye Niang, 2020 One Planet Laureate Candidate at the Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD)-Senegal at the Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute – ISRA botanical garden 

About 80% of Senegal’s rural population depend on subsistence farming. But, with the increasing drought and rising temperatures, their yields have significantly reduced,” explains Dr. Nogaye Niang, a Plant Microbiologist, and a 2020 One Planet Laureate Candidate.

Climate change has hit farmers hard. Extreme weather events like droughts are impacting harvest causing food insecurity. Despite long days of hard work in the fields, many farmers can no longer get enough yield to feed their families. In 2020, Food Crisis Prevention Network reported that more than 2.5 million Senegalese were at risk of food insecurity, while another 700,000 were in the crisis phase.

For Nogaye, this evidence reinforces the need to introduce sustainable agricultural practices that promote healthy ecosystems and sustainable land management. She explains that such methods will increase the smallholders’ food production and strengthen their resilience to climate change.

She is already developing alternative methods to improve the situation. Nogaye is working on a project to promote mycorrhization and biological nitrogen fixation in groundnut (Arachis hypogaea L.). She explains that the farms suffer nitrogen deficiency because of the nature of the semi-arid soils in Senegal. This case is worsened by the overuse of chemical fertilizers by the farmers. Therefore, legumes, such as groundnuts, are vitally sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical fertilization.

Nogaye recounts that growing up, her father, a sustainable farmer, would harvest more crops in their small farm plots compared to what farmers are reaping today. She attributes the bumper harvest to organic fertilizers they would obtain from her family’s livestock. This factor stayed with Nogaye as she grew up and chose a career in agriculture. She emphasizes that she wanted to improve her parents’ lives. To do that, she was curious to find better solutions that would help increase harvest and improve the soil quality for farmers like her parents. “Today, I am driven by the need to help mitigate the effects of climate change in an environment where production is threatened by irregular rainfall, water scarcity, drought, soil impoverishment, and degradation linked to the mass use of fertilizers,” she states. That is why her research aims to improve yields while minimizing environmental damage. She is exploring using plants and beneficial soil microorganisms to reduce chemical inputs and pesticides and raise production.

“Today, I am driven by the need to help mitigate the effects of climate change in an environment where production is threatened by irregular rainfall, water scarcity, drought, soil impoverishment, and degradation linked to the mass use of fertilizers,” she states.

Nogaye is working with farmers in the Thiès region and Mbawane, a village district about 55 kilometers from Dakar, to advance the locally adapted groundnut varieties that can fix nitrogen under dry conditions to generate competitive crop yields. She points out that in the last two decades, the farmers have witnessed the degradation and understand that changes must be made to improve their situation.

Dr. Nogaye Niang demonstrates the plant preparation process

 

To boost production, the Senegalese government has heavily subsidized chemical fertilizers over the last two decades, which experts argue has degraded the soil and left many farmers without knowledge of alternative methods. “While working with the farmers, I have noticed that they are eager to improve their livelihood. They welcome the move to transition to alternative methods that produce a better harvest,” she noted. Nogaye contributes to the transition by creating awareness through demonstrations, on-farm training, and public discussions. With support from scientists like Nogaye, local farmers are increasingly transitioning from traditional farming methods involving chemical fertilizers and getting more access to technological innovations that ensure sustainable food security.

Further, Nogaye explains that her Fellowship training has massively contributed to how she interacts with the farmers. As a result of the mentoring and leadership training, she can communicate her research findings clearly and negotiate ways the farmers can adopt new practices, thereby avoiding conflicts.

Through the One Planet Fellowship, African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) is building the capacity of young high-potential researchers such as Nogaye to develop gender-responsive, relevant interventions toward combating climate change. The One Planet Fellowship recognizes that climate change has gendered impacts and that scientists must learn how to use gender lens as they innovate solutions. Thus, One Planet Fellowship is building a robust pipeline of highly connected, inter-generational scientists equipped to use a gender lens to help Africa’s smallholder farmers cope with climate change.

Increasing agricultural production is necessary to meet the ongoing demands as the world population grows. Furthermore, to combat the negative environmental consequences of conventional agriculture techniques on food security, scientists must continue innovating and implementing environment-friendly practices. Innovations like the use of beneficial microorganisms are seen to be a promising alternative to traditional production habits and practices. Nogaye considers this innovation as more than a mitigation technique. It gives farmers a future while ensuring the economy is stable enough to sustain unforeseeable shocks. “Since I obtained my Master’s II in Plant and Microbial Biotechnology in 2011, I told myself that I had to continue along the same path to achieve my goals: to understand the role of microorganisms in soil functioning and hydro-mineral nutrition of plants,” she concludes.

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