A collaborative project between the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Research Beacon, the Schools of Biosciences, Humanities and the Faculty of Engineering, along with colleagues at the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London (UCL) and the University of Zambia (UNZA) has received funding to help them in their research to promote sustainable agriculture in southern Africa, using historic soil surveys.

The study, called InSTAnZa, is one of 141 projects from across the UK to receive significant funding from the UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Collective Programme.

The programme brings together a wide range of researchers and experts from across the UK and developing countries to generate innovative solutions to intractable development issues and contribute to enabling healthier and safer lives, sustainable development and prosperity for all.

The project looks at inherited soil surveys in Zambia, starting from the 1930s, when British surveyor Colin Trapnell and his colleagues examined vegetation, farming practices and the soil, and subsequently published a national vegetation and soil map of Zambia in 1947.

Information about soils, their composition, properties and status, is essential for policymaking and land management to develop sustainable agricultural practices in a changing climate. Soil is variable though, and reliable information about it can be hard to find.

Experts will investigate the rich archive of available historical soil data, to gain important insights that could be used to address contemporary agricultural problems. For example, a current priority in Zambia is identifying the soils where conservation agriculture interventions might have the biggest impact.

The project is led by Professor Murray Lark, from the Future Food Beacon at the University of Nottingham. He said: “We are delighted to receive this funding from UKRI to support the InSTAnZa project. It is important to exercise caution when dealing with material from the colonial era; old soil surveys can’t simply be dusted off and used uncritically. That is why we needed a collaborative approach between pedologists, historians and social scientists.

Dr Anna Greenwood, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Dr Alison Mohr, a social scientist and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering, are co-investigators on the project. Dr Maurice Hutton is working on the project as a Research Fellow in the Department of History.

External co-investigators on the project are Dr Lydia Chabala, Dr Clarence Chongo, Dr Nawa Mwale and Mr Stalin Sichinga from the University of Zambia and Professor Megan Vaughan, Professor of African History and Health at UCL. Dr Ikabongo Mukumbuta and Nalumino Namwayi are Research Fellows on the project at the University of Zambia.

Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI’s International Champion, said: “UKRI is proud to announce this initiative celebrating the spirit of international collaboration in research and innovation. The pandemic has irrefutably demonstrated that we are part of a global community and must work together to tackle global crises.

“This exciting Programme brings together diverse expertise from across the globe, ensuring that the voices of those most impacted are empowered to drive sustainable solutions for those most in need.

“Working in partnership with developing nations, the UK’s research and innovation system has a crucial role to play in finding innovative solutions to interlinked issues such as environmental disasters, extreme poverty and food security. These international development research projects announced today are essential to finding these solutions.”