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TANS testing cyanobacteria biofertilizer for developing countries

September 26, 2013

Solomon Yigrem, Thin Air field manager in Ethiopia, checks on the cyanobacterial biofertilizer production system. Mixing soil with original cultures and seeding them in shallow ponds produce the blue-green algae biofertilizer.

Solomon Yigrem, Thin Air field manager in Ethiopia, checks on the cyanobacterial biofertilizer production system. Mixing soil with original cultures and seeding them in shallow ponds produce the blue-green algae biofertilizer. Photo by: Endalkachew Wolde-meskel/Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions

Eliza Villarino writes in about Jessica Gwyn Davis, a professor of soil and crop sciences at the Colorado State University, who co-founded Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions (TANS) in 2008 to develop cyanobacteria-based fertilizer as an economic alternative for the developing world.

TANS is currently testing their cyanobacteria cultivation technology in Ethiopia, using soil containing original cultures and seeding them in shallow ponds. Since the Ethiopian government ended its fertilizer subsidy program in the late 1990s, fertilizer use has declined, and even the less expensive urea fertilizer has become too expensive for many smallholder farmers, the vast majority of whom survive on less than $2 daily. Without returning nutrients to the soil after long periods of farming, soil fertility declines, leading to lower crop yields and lower income for farmers with an increase in malnutrition.

According to Davis, when asked how much they were willing to pay for cyanobacteria-based fertilizer of the same weight as urea fertilizer, farmers quoted 200 Ethiopian birrs and said they were willing to pay more per kilogram of nitrogen of the biofertilizer “because they recognize the value of the organic matter in reversing soil degradation and improving soil fertility.”

Based on tests on maize, kale, pepper, lettuce and tomato, TANS found that yields from those receiving cyanobacterial biofertilizer are at par or exceeded outcomes from urea application and double those with zero fertilizer use. There was also an increase in micronutrient concentrations found in plants’ edible portions, such as zinc (more than double), iron (50 percent increase), and beta-carotene (at least twice the amount), as compared to urea-applied and control crops.

Thin Air Nitrogen Solutions hopes to begin producing and testing cyanobacterial biofertilizer in southern Ethiopia in 2014, engaging women smallholder farmers as producers so that they can enhance their incomes and status in the communities. It will also measure impacts on income, food security and gender equity.

Currently, TANS is working off a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures to test the technology, and the group hopes to win another grant from DIV to build on its trials. It has also received backing from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Association.

Davis said she and her colleagues are interested in collaborating with private companies, nonprofits and government agencies “with goals similar to ours.”

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