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Sustainable Agriculture for Sub-Saharan Africa (SASSA)

Copyright: World Agroforestry Centre on Flickr by CC 2.0

Call status: Closed
Previous call: 19 July 2017 - 8 November 2017

The Sustainable Intensification Research Network (SIRN) partner search tool is now available for UK and African researchers.


We are pleased to announce a £10 million call for collaborative proposals to address research challenges relating to the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Proposals must be led by a Principal Investigator (PI) in the UK, but may include Co-Investigators (Co-Is) in Africa and this is strongly encouraged.

The call aims to enhance food security by improving the productivity and health of crops important to African farmers. Its focus is on farming systems in which crops are grown primarily for human consumption, and their interactions with the environment. Projects may also include crops grown for animal feed or non-food uses in rotations or mixtures with food crops, and the contributions of farmed animals to food crop productivity.

This call is funded from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). As well as being scientifically excellent, research supported under it must meet the criteria for classification of expenditure as Official Development Assistance (ODA).


Global demand for food is rising because of both population growth and increased consumption (particularly of animal products) associated with increasing affluence and urbanisation. It is estimated that at least 50% more food will need to be produced (ref 1) to feed the world’s population which is projected to grow from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.5 billion in 2050 (ref 2).

But production is constrained by competition for available land and fresh water, and the impacts of agriculture on the wider environment. In addition, the reliability of food supplies is reducing because of the increasingly unpredictable impacts of climate change, pests and diseases.

Healthy diets depend on quality too, not just quantity, and there is also a global nutrition crisis. Malnutrition, in all its forms, affects one in three people worldwide, and poor diet is the number one risk factor in the world burden of disease (ref 3). Nearly half of deaths under the age of five are due to malnutrition, while children whose growth is stunted because of nutritional deficiency are more likely to live in poverty as adults.

Food security is complex and affected by many factors. Addressing it must take account of consumption and waste as well as supply, and agriculture should not be considered in isolation from other aspects of the wider food system (ref 4). Amongst other changes, achieving global food security will require the more sustainable and resilient production of sufficient safe and nutritious food from the same or a smaller area of cultivated land, and with fewer inputs of water, energy and nutrients. At the same time, adverse impacts of agriculture on biodiversity, soil, water and the atmosphere must be minimised.

This challenge is particularly significant in SSA, the world’s most food-insecure region (ref 5), where the prevalence of chronically hungry people (ref 6) and rates of malnutrition (ref 7) are both high. Agriculture in SSA is constrained by a wide range of biological, environmental, social, economic and political factors. It is also one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change (ref 8). Productivity is not increasing sufficiently to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population, projected to quadruple between 2015 and 2100 to almost four billion (ref 9), with an expanding proportion of young people.

Purpose and aims

One of the suggested ways of increasing food production, while minimising adverse impacts, is through the sustainable intensification (SI) (ref 10) of agriculture. For the purpose of this call, SI is defined as sustainably increasing the production of food, combined with improved resource use efficiency and better environmental (and social and economic) outcomes. Achievement of SI will require balancing production (and optimising potential trade-offs) with maintaining the natural capital on which it and other ecosystem services depend - as distinct from increasing yield per se or just ‘growing more with less’.

This call is intended to contribute to the SI of agriculture in SSA by supporting collaborative research that combines the expertise of scientists in the UK with the knowledge of research and uptake partners in the target region. The inclusion of “in-country” researchers as Co-Is is strongly encouraged, in integrated partnerships with clear and complementary roles, and equitable divisions of responsibilities and resources between Africa and the UK. The engagement of farmers, policymakers or extension workers in project design and delivery is also encouraged to enable the proposed research to have sustainable impact by delivering technologies appropriate for potential users of its outcomes, and strengthening capacity for the longer term.

The call aims to enhance food and nutritional security, and contribute to economic development, by improving the productivity and health of crops important to African farmers - particularly regionally important ‘orphan’ crops (ref 11) relevant to the needs of smallholders in multiple countries (as distinct from commodity crops traded in world markets or ‘niche’ crops of only local significance). It has been informed by the needs of countries in SSA, as expressed in the report of a workshop held in Kenya in March 2017 (see external links) (ref 12).


The focus of the call is on African farming systems in which crops are grown for (primarily local) human consumption, and their interactions with the environment. This includes the benefits derived by agriculture from other ecosystem services and its consequences for the natural capital on which it and they depend. Research is particularly encouraged on regionally important ‘orphan’ crops relevant to the needs of smallholder farmers in multiple African countries - as distinct from commodity crops traded in world markets or ‘niche’ crops of only local significance.

Projects may additionally include crops grown for animal feed or non-food uses in rotations or mixtures with food crops, but the focus must be on production of the food crop(s). The scope of the call also includes the contributions of farmed animals to food crop productivity (for example through improved soil quality or nutrient cycling in crop-livestock systems), but research focused primarily on animal production or health is excluded.

The call will support systems-oriented research that aims to improve the productivity, sustainability, resilience or health of crops while maintaining or enhancing natural capital and other ecosystem services. Studies are encouraged of the (multiple, often competing) interactions between the diverse elements of agricultural systems (soil, water, nutrients, beneficial biodiversity, pests, crops, farmed animals), as well as the implications of trade-offs at different scales. This includes the potential for integrated land management, beyond the individual field or farm, to optimise production and other ecosystem services at a wider landscape scale.

Proposals are invited to address one or more of the following themes:

  • soil health
  • nutrient management
  • water management
  • managing crop pests and diseases.

Integrative proposals that bring together aspects of two or more themes would be welcome - as would multi/inter-disciplinary and multi-scale approaches - in particular for research to optimise, in a systems context, one or more of:

  • the use, management and conservation of soil, nutrients or water in a changing environment
  • the exploitation of biodiversity:
    • genetic variation in regionally important indigenous and ‘orphan’ crops (including in mixed and rotational cropping systems)
    • the agronomic potential of beneficial organisms (fauna, flora or microbiota, above or below ground) for enhancing crop productivity or countering pests, weeds or diseases.

The proposed research must be predominantly within BBSRC's remit, and include a substantial element of investigative bioscience. However, potential application of the research must also take account of its broader social and cultural (particularly gender), economic and environmental contexts, and some aspects of proposals under this call may appropriately span interfaces with the remits of other research councils.

Proposals are expected to take account of relevant wider issues, including, as appropriate, the needs for:

  • nutritional security (and safe food) as well as food security
  • agriculture to be environmentally sustainable and ‘climate smart’
  • co-design of research with potential users of its outcomes
  • gender differences and other social, cultural or economic influences on farming practice and access to or capacity to take up research outcomes.

Official Development Assistance

This call is funded from BBSRC’s allocation of the GCRF and forms part of the UK’s ODA. As well as being scientifically excellent, research supported under the call must meet the criteria for classification of expenditure as ODA, as defined by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Further information is provided in the guidance for applicants.

Applicants must demonstrate that the primary purpose of their proposed research is to promote the economic development and welfare of people in SSA. The scale and breadth of its potential impact will be an important consideration in the assessment of proposals.

Project scale and duration

Up to £10 million is available, subject to the quality of proposals received, with the aim of supporting a balanced portfolio of around 10 to 15 projects across the scope of the call. Applications must not exceed a maximum of £2 million (at 100% of their full economic cost).

Funds can be requested for up to three years, but projects are expected to be completed by 30 June 2021.


Applications will be rejected before peer review for proposals which:

  • are not predominantly within BBSRC's remit
  • are outside the scope of the call
  • do not have ODA relevance
  • request funding for ineligible individuals or organisations.


The call is open only to individuals and organisations normally eligible to apply to the UK research councils for research grants, details of which are on the RCUK website.

Applications must be led by an eligible PI in the UK.

As well as UK researchers normally eligible for BBSRC funding, applications may include (for this call only) eligible Co-Is based in any of the African countries listed in the downloads section. Full details of eligibility for this call are provided in the guidance for applicants.

Information about the funding that may be requested is provided in the guidance for applicants, along with instructions on how costs should be entered in the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system and, for African institutions, the additional Overseas Resource Requests spreadsheet.

How to apply

This call is closed to applications.

Applications must be submitted via the Je-S system by 8 November 2017, 16:00 (GMT).

A single application should be submitted by the research organisation of the UK PI on behalf of all participating organisations.

All applicants named on the Je-S form must be registered as users of the system well before the application is submitted. Guidance on how to create an account is in the Je-S Handbook. Applications cannot be processed if this has not been done.

Full details of the submission process and documentation required are provided in the guidance for applicants below.


Stage Date
Call opens 4 September 2017
Application deadline 8 November 2017, 16:00 (GMT)
Funding decisions April/May 2018
Projects to start 1 July 2018

Webinar for lead applicants

SASSA attracted considerable attention from researchers in both Africa and the UK. Because of this, we provided some additional guidance and a webinar with Brian Harris (BBSRC Head of Agriculture and Food Security). For more information, see: Sustainable Agriculture for Sub-Saharan Africa (SASSA): Webinar for lead applicants.

Panel Membership

Professor Peter Gregory - University of Reading (Chair)
Professor Chris Gilligan - University of Cambridge (Deputy Chair)
Professor Michael Abberton - IITA, Nigeria
Dr Myriam Adam - CIRAD
Dr Tilahun Amede - ICRISAT
Professor Gary Bending - The University of Warwick
Dr Glenn Bryan- The James Hutton Institute
Professor Dave Chadwick - Bangor University
Dr Katrien Descheemaeker- Wageningen University Professor
Christine Foyer - University of Leeds
Mr John Gowing - Newcastle University
Dr Stephan Haefele - Rothamsted Research
Dr William Otim-Nape - Africa Innovation
Dr Leonard Rusinamhodzi- CIMMYT
Dr Diane Saunders - John Innes Centre
Professor Carol Shennan - University of California Santa Cruz
Dr Zerihun Tadele - University of Bern
Professor Kenneth Wilson - Lancaster University

Awarded Grants

9 projects that have been funded under SASSA are as follows:
  • Durable Rice Blast Resistance for Sub-Saharan Africa UK lead: Nicholas Talbot, University of East Anglia
  • Enhancing crop diversity and ecosystem services to promote biological control of fall armyworm in smallholder cropping systems UK lead: Toby Bruce, Keele University
  • LegumeSELECT: Science-driven Evaluation of LEgume Choice for Transformed livelihoods UK lead: Elizabeth Baggs, The University of Edinburgh
  • Natural Pest Regulation on Orphan Crop Legumes in Africa (NaPROCLA) UK lead: Philip Stevenson, University of Greenwich
  • Unlocking the Potential of Grasspea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought-prone Environments (UPGRADE) UK lead: Cathie Martin, John Innes Centre
  • Improving production efficiency of African Eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum) for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa UK lead: Gerard Bishop, National Institute of Agricultural Botany
  • GLTEN Africa: Cropping system diversity, a cornerstone of sustainable intensification. UK lead: Jonathan Storkey, Rothamsted Research
  • Harnessing the benefits of African leafy vegetables for smallholder farmers and their households UK lead: Katherine Denby, University of York
  • Mechanisms and genetics of iron toxicity tolerance in African rice UK lead: Guy Kirk, Cranfield University


  1. The World Bank: Food security [Cited May 2017].
  2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. World Population Prospects: key findings and advance tables, 2015 revision. 2015.
  3. Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. (2016). Food systems and diets: facing the challenges of the 21st century.
  4. International Food Policy Research Institute 2017 Global Food Policy Report.
  5. FAO: Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: Prospects and challenges for the next decade (PDF)

    You may need to download additional plug-ins to open this file.

  6. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2015a). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Rome, Italy: FAO.
  7. United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund. (2016). Current Status and Progress in Malnutrition. New York, USA: UNICEF. Retrieved from: UNICEF: Malnutrition.
  8. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. (2010). Climate-Smart Agriculture: Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation. Rome, Italy: FAO. “Climate-Smart” Agriculture (PDF).
  9. AGRA: Africa Agriculture Status Report 2016: Progress towards agricultural transformation in Africa

    You may need to download additional plug-ins to open this file.

  10. Report of the BBSRC Working Group on Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture (PDF).
  11. Orphan crops are defined here as ‘(largely indigenous) crops that are under-researched and underfunded due to their limited importance in the global market’. They are characterised by their resilience, adaptation to environmental stress and important nutritional value, and have local significance where they are produced and used (see SciDev.Net: The dire need to support 'orphan crop' research).
  12. The workshop on 13-15 March 2017 was hosted by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute Hub in Nairobi, Kenya. It was co-organised with BBSRC, the John Innes Centre and the Sustainable Intensification Research Network (SIRN). The report of the workshop is available on SIRN’s website.

Header image copyright: World Agroforestry Centre on Flickr by CC 2.0.

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