An enriching experiment: Harnessing nitrogen from the air to improve soil fertility in Ethiopia

$99,854 | Stage 1: Proof of Concept | Agriculture & Food Security

The problem: Poor soil quality and low crop yields

Soil fertility depletion in smallholder farms is the fundamental cause of declining per capita food production in sub-Saharan Africa. The smallholder farmer is often working in the poorest quality soil. In Ethiopia, it typically takes 10 months from the time a farmer orders fertilizer to its arrival, and transport costs are 7 times higher in Africa than in the US. Lack of availability and prohibitive cost are major deterrents for smallholders to adopt the use of organic fertilizer. An innovative approach to improving soil fertility is crucial to improving the livelihoods of smallholders in developing countries such as Ethiopia, a Feed the Future country.

The solution: Harnessing nitrogen to increase soil fertility 

Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions

With Stage 1 support from DIV, Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions, LLC—a start-up company founded by Colorado State University researchers—will collaborate with Hawassa University to demonstrate the feasibility of producing cyanobacterial bio-fertilizer in a pilot-scale outdoor open-pond system in Ethiopia. The project explores the potential for farmers to grow their own nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria intensively at the family farm or village level for direct use as fertilizer. The on-farm approach of growing cyanobacteria intensively in ponds and harvesting the culture for use on any crop sidesteps the need for energy-intensive production and transportation infrastructure to get fertilizers to farmers’ fields.

The bio-fertilizer, once developed, aims to increase incomes for local farmers, improve food security, and have both direct and indirect positive effects on climate change through reduced dependency on imported chemical fertilizers. In the long-term, bio-fertilizer application will also increase water-use efficiency, decrease deforestation due to agriculture expansion, reduce erosion, and improve soil health.

Potential cost effectiveness, impacts, and implications

Through the study, Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions will measure the yield impact of the bio-fertilizer, calculate the cost effectiveness and economic feasibility of the technology, and develop and test training materials and distribution channels. The project will develop and test a business model in southern Ethiopia that can be expanded across Africa, and will make recommendations to facilitate entrepreneurship related to credit, business planning and practices.

Learn more

  • Learn more about the Feed the Future program in Ethiopia
  • Read more about Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions
  • Find out about cyanobacteria


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Last updated: August 28, 2015

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