Dr. D. Hellums

On the occasion of International Earth Day, Dr. Deborah Hellums presents IFDC’s advances in fertilizer research in Africa and southeast Asia, and its mission to promote balanced plant nutrition.

IFA: As Director of Fertilizer Research for IFDC, what are your responsibilities and key priorities?
Dr. D. Hellums:
: I am responsible for guiding IFDC’s fertilizer research, which includes three major areas: Technology, with the production and development of new products and processes; Soil and Plant Nutrition, which entails research on soil fertility, increased nutrient use efficiency, and balanced plant nutrition and Economics, Policy and Trade, focused on private sector-driven fertilizer market development. This includes areas such as: research on the economics of fertilizer use by smallholders, the cost/benefits associated with the technologies that IFDC promotes, cost build-ups along the fertilizer supply chain, policy recommendations to reduce fertilizer costs and ensure quality, and activities that support ago-dealer development, smallholder associations, and market linkages.br /> br /> My key priorities for our research efforts focus on making sure our staff have the resources and equipment they need for their research, especially for the public good areas of our work. In addition, I help ensure that – whether working with our beneficiaries and partners in our field work or with the private sector – we are listening and responding to the needs of the client in a timely manner.

IFA: How is fertilizer research evolving? What current trends are IFDC identifying in this field?
Dr. D. Hellums
: IFDC’s research focuses on smallholders in developing countries in Africa and southeast Asia. For many years, our efforts centered on increasing smallholder farmers’ access to nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) fertilizers, usually through promoting smart subsidies and voucher programs. Now we’re seeing the need for more than just N, P, and sometimes potassium (K) – the three primary nutrients.

We continue to research improving nutrient use efficiency (especially N efficiency) and best management practices, but IFDC is also devoting resources to promoting balanced plant nutrition, which includes fertilizer formulations that cost-effectively provide secondary and micronutrients in addition to the “big three” – N, P, and K. We are seeing positive results not only in terms of yield increases but also increased resilience to drought, disease, and salinity. Ultimately, when combined with the current breeding advances, we believe a balanced plant nutrition approach will improve the nutritional quality of the crops themselves, translating into the reduction of global malnutrition.

In addition to seeing a growing need for improved and balanced fertilizer formulations, we recognize the need for diversification of the crops for which nutrient solutions are developed. For many years, IFDC’s work has focused on increasing productivity of staple grain crops, such as rice, maize, and wheat – crops critical for food security. Now and in the future, it also will be important to focus on solutions for other crops, such as vegetables and fruits, especially because of their nutritional benefits. In other instances, cash crops, such as cotton, coffee, and cocoa, that are being grown by smallholders are becoming a part of the applied research agenda.

IFA:IFDC and USAID have very recently unveiled a new fertilizer in Kenya, which in addition to N, P and K, also contains Sulphur and Zinc. Why is it important to tailor fertilizer products for specific crops and soils?
Dr. D. Hellums:
: This new fertilizer formulation is one of a number that we are introducing in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia to meet various soil and crop needs. These new formulations are important because we are seeing very encouraging crop yield responses to sulfur and some micronutrients. Simply using urea, diammonium phosphate (DAP), and NPKs, as many smallholder farmers are doing, may not result in the maximum economic yield. As noted previously, it is important to tailor fertilizer products for specific crops and soils because we know that soils vary tremendously in their nutrient content because of weathering, the parent material from which the soils evolved, cultivation practices, etc. Virtually all soils are responsive to nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, and many are responsive to potassium, but we are now beginning to see yield stagnation and even reduced yields in many soils due to low levels of secondary and/or micronutrients. It is essential to start integrating secondary and micronutrients into new products to maximize crop yield and nutritional quality.

Also, we will need to look at how these nutrients are delivered. Because they are needed in much smaller quantities, it will be difficult to evenly integrate them and prevent segregation in blends. Researching alternate delivery methods, whether that be through a foliar spray or using another fertilizer product as a carrier, is an important part of our balanced nutrition approach.

We have a diversity of crops, and we have a diversity of soils, and ultimately, the aim is to match the crops’ needs with the ability of the soils to supply nutrients. The formulations and technologies we develop will play a crucial role in enabling soils and plants to reach their full potential.

IFA: IFDC has recently carried out fertilizer quality surveys in several SSA countries. What are the key lessons, and opportunities for IFDC and the industry?
Dr. D. Hellums:
: In West Africa, the fertilizers tested were in the solid form as either compound or blended fertilizers. Problems identified with quality were primarily more related to the blending process, not intentional adulteration. Since blending was not always properly done, the formulations had different or lower nutrient contents than what farmers thought they were purchasing.

We have expanded this research into similar studies in eastern and southern Africa where we are dealing with both solid and liquid fertilizers. We just completed a draft report on fertilizer quality analysis for Kenya, and we have also completed the chemical analyses for the fertilizers collected in Zambia. Currently, our staff is looking at the fertilizer sector in Uganda. There are differences among the various countries and regions.

The lessons that we have learned to date are that it is important for the neighboring countries to consider harmonizing fertilizer regulations to facilitate trade of quality products, but even if that is done, oftentimes national governments lack the resources for the manpower and laboratory facilities necessary to enforce the regulations and to ensure truth in labeling of the fertilizers on the market. It is important that farmers get the benefits they expect, since fertilizer inputs represent a major cost for smallholders.

For IFDC, the opportunity has been to work with various governments and regional bodies to harmonize the regulations so that some of the cost we see associated with restricted trade can be reduced, thereby reducing costs to farmers, and to help identify problems areas with fertilizer quality so they can be addressed. For the industry, it is important to ensure that the quality of the products they are bringing into the continent is maintained along the supply chain.

About IFDC

Since 1974, IFDC has focused on increasing and sustaining food security and agricultural productivity in over 100 developing countries through the development and transfer of effective and environmentally sound crop nutrient technology and agribusiness expertise.

About Dr. D. Hellums:

Dr. Deborah T. Hellums currently serves as the Director of Fertilizer Research. Hellums has more than 30 years of experience in soil fertility research to support agricultural intensification in IFDC’s development projects. She has provided technical assistance to a number of IFDC’s projects focused on scaling out improved technologies that increase crop production on smallholder farms and contribute to food security in developing countries.