We have heard it over and over—that microbes will revolutionize agriculture. We have seen big investments by larger agricultural companies. We have witnessed a gradual growth in the number of companies and start-ups jumping on the wagon to produce and commercialize microbial cocktails that are useful to farmers and agriculture. We have also seen the birth of partnerships between these companies and universities in an effort to accelerate the discovery process.

As a result, several agricultural companies have released a number of microbial products that are being used across the Unites States including California and Texas. Farmers are using these products to boost crop productivity, increase yields and strengthen the resilience and ability to plants to deal with multiple stressors that are associated with the changing climate. Indeed, microbial inoculants are positively impacting agriculture. What’s more is that the future is still very promising since several companies including BioConsortia, AgBiome and Indigo are yet to release products they have been working on—products that are still in the discovery pipeline.

Outside the US, microbes are also making an impact and countries including Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Australia are actively using agricultural microbials. Asia-Pacific countries are in the growth stage. The future also seems very promising and it is anticipated that agricultural microbials market will be worth $5.07 billion by 2021.

Yet, even with all the gradual and steady increase in the use of microbial products and technologies in the developed world, little progress has been made in the African continent.

Like the developed world, the African continent soil also harbors billions of beneficial soil bacteria that can be utilized to revolutionize African agriculture. And for many smallholder farmers across Africa who have few resources, microbe inoculants can open new opportunities. Such opportunities can range from increase in crop yields to increase in productivity from their small parcels of land.

So, how do we unravel the mysteries of African soil microbes and get microbe inventions and applications to work for smallholder farmers who need them the most?

First and foremost it will take passionate scientists and committed stakeholders to spearhead this initiative in Africa. Like any successful initiative, it takes pioneers who believe in the research and those with enough expertise to undertake the research. It will also take other stakeholders, like funding agencies, industry partners, NGO’s, governments and farmers.

The good news is that this is already beginning to happen; scientists, universities, funding agencies, and agricultural companies have stepped up to make this happen for Africa. These efforts are commendable, but comparing the level of commitment and interest in the developed world, clearly, more pioneers need to step up to the challenge. At the same time, current ongoing initiatives like those by AgBiome need to be scaled up.

Once we have a group of committed scientists, researchers, universities, and private companies, NGO’S, funding agencies and other committed stakeholders, logistics of how such an initiative would be laid out to ensure its success and sustainability must happen.

We can learn from similar initiatives, like N2Africa. In part it aims to explore the potential of nitrogen-fixing microbes to boost crop production in sub-Saharan Africa and to develop cost-effective rhizobial inoculants and other biological products that can in turn be used by smallholder farmers to improve productivity of legume crops. This initiative has successfully been able to work with over 230,000 smallholder farmers-who now use rhizobial inoculants to improve agricultural productivity. 

Related, learning from organizations like N2Africa that have been successful with inspiring small holder farmers to use of rhizobial inoculants would help pioneering scientists and other stakeholders use best practices, ensuring success in rolling out microbes for Africa initiatives. Most importantly, it would also be useful if seasoned initiatives could form meaningful collaborations with emerging initiatives.

Further, just like any new initiative, farmers have to be able to see the difference these technologies developed from beneficial soil microbes can make. Consequently, there is need for demonstration plots as well as the need to engage farmers as the initiatives rolls out.

To achieve this, some of the field trials from the experiments being conducted by pioneering scientists can be done in strategic locations that are accessible to farmers. These strategic locations can be in university institutions or government mandated national agricultural organizations. Field demonstrations are the most effective extension education tools that can be used to showcase technologies and new agricultural knowledge.

Granted, the use of microbes is not without its own unique set of challenges-especially for Africa. Costs involved in rolling out such an initiative are huge. It cost the BioAg alliance, for example, $300,000 million to initiate one of the largest microbials for agriculture initiative. Furthermore, cheaper and inexpensive and efficient ways to produce and package microbial cocktails and products have to be realized.

The task of growing enough food, especially in Africa, is enormous and will require the use of many innovations including those developed from beneficial soil microbes. Africa must harness their potential to revolutionize agriculture and tap into this unexploited frontier to help increase agricultural productivity.