Ethiopia is endowed with a variety of agro-ecological zones that differ in terms of rainfall, temperature, altitude, soil types and vegetation. These have resulted in rich species diversity including many cultivated and wild plant, and also great variation in the agricultural activities carried out in different agro-ecological zones. The country is considered as the centre of origin and diversity of many cultivated crops; and hence recognized as one of the Vavilovian crop diversity centres. Most of these crops have their origin in the country and maintain high levels of diversity with the presence of several local landraces restricted to certain agro-ecologies. The country is also regarded as centre of diversity for several legumes, and their associated nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria. SOILMAN aims at making use of this diversity for improving food security, helping restore degraded environments and mitigating climate change with the help of biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) in the symbiosis between rhizobium bacteria and legumes and by involving farmers in the process.
SOILMAN is divided into four subprojects: (i) Genomics and taxonomy of rhizobia isolated from common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), Crotalaria spp., Indigofera spp. and Erythrina brucei growing in Ethiopia. These bacteria formed unique phylogenetic groups that were distinct from recognized rhizobial species based on MLSA (1,2,3) and genome sequencing is now used to characterize new species. (ii) Collection and characterization of rhizobia from diverse Ethiopian soils differing in clay content, acidity and salinity, by trapping with Cicer arietinum, Lens culinaris, Vicia faba, Lathyrus sativus and Cajanus cajan for biogeographic studies and future use in agriculture. (iii) Field experiments on two Ethiopian sites (loam soils with pH 6.4 and 8.0) with common bean and soybean (Glycine max) and strains from the Ethiopian collection that have performed well in greenhouse conditions. (iv) Work with farmers and other stakeholders in an Innovation Platform process. Selected farmers and extension workers from two villages meet regularly with our facilitator to learn about legume cultivation and inoculation and to share experience on their use. In the first year farmers were offered seed and inoculant for common bean and soybean, a novelty in the area. Only four farmers chose soybean then, but in the second year almost everybody wanted it. A knowledge workshop on the nutritional value of soybean followed by a cooking workshop still boosted the interest in soybean. Some farmers set up small experiments to investigate nodulation and the interest was spread to neighbours. To sustain the activities in the future, we involved a local cooperative organisation. Locally produced, high-quality inoculant must be secured and access to markets ensured.