This is an exciting opportunity providing nine fully-funded PhD studentships covering a wide range of topics vital for building capacity in African agricultural research. The PhD candidates will work with Cranfield University (UK), Rothamsted Research (UK) and Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (Morocco).

There are 9 projects in total. Click ‘Read more’ below to see the full list and outline of each project.

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Each of the studentships will be part of a larger multidisciplinary collaborative research project. In addition to comprehensive training in research techniques, the successful candidates will gain transferable skills in communication, data analysis and team working, equipping them for a multitude of potential roles in the continuing development of African agricultural systems. 

The PhD candidates will register in the UK at Cranfield University , a research-intensive, postgraduate-only institution specialising in strategic and applied research in science, technology and management, recently awarded the prestigious Queens Anniversary Prize (2017) for soil science. The students will also carry out research projects in collaboration at Rothamsted Research (25 miles from Cranfield University), the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world, with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soil management; and in Morocco at The Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, a hub of education, research, innovation and entrepreneurship, aspiring to become a solid bridge of knowledge between Morocco, Africa and the world. 

The Research students will benefit from being part of the Agricultural Innovation for Morocco Centre for Doctoral Training (AIM-CDT) which will educate a future generation of high calibre agricultural scientists to PhD level. Students will develop academic, technical and entrepreneurial skills allowing them to take up leadership roles in an academic or industrial setting to drive forward agricultural research and innovation. This will be achieved through a balance of academic excellence, laboratory and field experience, and strong industrial interconnectivity throughout the students’ training. The AIM-CDT students will be registered at Cranfield University, and supervised by staff from the consortium of Cranfield University (CU), Rothamsted Research (RRes), and Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P), supported by OCP Group. Further details about the partnership

Exploitation of beneficial root-associated bacteria in cereal-based cropping systems in Morocco
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP01)
Supervisors: Prof. Jim Harris (CU), Dr Tim Mauchline (RRes),  Dr Adnane Bargaz (UM6P)
Current agricultural practices rely on expensive and environmentally damaging agrochemical inputs. It is essential that alternative strategies are developed to ensure that food production is maintained and that we produce crops that are more resilient to stressful conditions. The plant microbiome, the full complement of microbes associated with a given plant host, holds promise in contributing to sustainable crop production. A better understanding of the plant-associated microbiome and its interaction with host plants, as well as intra-microbiome associations, is essential to make use of this resource. This is especially important in Africa where abiotic constraints, including low soil fertility and drought, are a constant threat. The project will assess the plant microbiome constituents of Moroccan field-grown wheat and maize, and seeks to demonstrate proof-of-concept for the use of microbiome to boost crop production.  

New soil and plant diagnostics tools for better fertilizer recommendations
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP02)
This PhD project will work alongside the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) whose mission is to ensure that Africa’s soil and landscape resources are described, understood and used effectively to raise agricultural productivity and lower ecological footprints. The student will work with AfSIS to establish detailed crop and soil information for Sub-Saharan Africa, and develop a range of methods and tools to map and characterize soils economically and quickly. Novel, non-destructive, spectral sensing methods are currently under development for the diagnosis and monitoring of soil fertility and crop nutrition, and maps will be prepared of potential micronutrient deficiencies for crop production. This will lead to decision support tools and recommendations for the design and use of fertilizer blends to address local micro-nutrient deficiencies; tools will also inform other land and crop management decisions (e.g. crop species, tillage, irrigation). 
Technical and practical innovations to reduce soil and water losses by improving soil physical properties
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP03)
The geographical diversity of Morocco results in varied agriculture, with crops ranging from cereals and vegetables to fruits and nuts. A major constraint facing Morocco is the impact of climate change and the increased prevalence of drought. Morocco has suffered a drought every three years over the past few decades. These prolonged droughts are increasing soil degradation, with desertification and soil erosion threatening 50% and 80% of land, respectively. The proposed project deals with these issues directly by investigating how different crops affect soil physical properties. The project will allow the student to study how root activity affects aspects of soil structure which have a direct impact on erosion by wind and water as well as water conservation. The project will identify ways to improve soil physical structure to mitigate soil and water losses in Moroccan agricultural systems. It will identify how roots of local crop species can be used to improve soil structure and will develop, for the first time, methods to quantify combined rainfall and wind erosion. Improving soil physical conditions will have a positive impact on agricultural productivity and the outputs of the project will contribute to the mine rehabilitation program of OCP Group. 
Image analysis for plant phenotyping–machine learning based methods for analysis of multi-model and multi-dimensional remote sensing data from high-throughput plant phenotyping
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP04a) 
Supervisors: Dr Fady Mohareb (CU), Prof. Malcolm Hawkesford (RRes), Dr Mohamed Arji (UM6P)
Nutrient deficiency is a typical abiotic stress encountered in cropping systems across the globe. Fertilizer applications can alleviate deficiencies, however optimal fertilization rates and modes of application for maximum yield will usually be different from optimal rates for maximal economic return. Within this project, the student will use advanced sensor and image analysis technologies, including hand-held, drone-based and satellite imagery, to provide workflows that a) identify different nutrient stresses and b) estimate required rates of fertilization to maximise economic return. For proof-of-concept, utilising wheat as a model crop, nutrient deficiency field experiments at Rothamsted will be phenotyped regularly through the growing season. The student will use the data collected to identify and quantify the deficiencies and to provide recommendations on suitable remedial action. The approach will be based purely on non-invasive measurements, validated by traditional crop and soil sampling. The techniques will be further validated on a range of African crops grown in both the UK and Morocco.
Phenotyping the nutritional status of crops using remote sensing technologies
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP04b)
Supervisors: Dr Fady Mohareb (CU), Prof. Malcolm Hawkesford (RRes), Dr Mohamed Arji (UM6P).
The emergence of rapid high-throughput technologies for digital agriculture has facilitated a revolution in how data are captured and analysed. Multi-sensor phenotyping platforms such as the robotic automated phenotyping platforms in the field at Rothamsted and within a glasshouse at Cranfield enable the non-destructive monitoring of canopy development, function and health throughout a crop lifecycle with unprecedented detail at scales ranging from mm scale plant morphology and biochemical composition to field-scale evaluation. These platforms generate a diversity of data sets from 1D sensors, 2D images and 3D point clouds which have challenging data management and data analysis demands. The aim of this project is to develop image analysis methods for the efficient analysis of phenotyping data that will rapidly deliver improved understanding of fertilizer use efficiency and crop responses to fertilizer inputs. The student will work on developing a data/image analysis framework including computer vision, pattern recognition and image processing algorithms and will collaborate closely with other members of phenotyping groups in a multi-disciplinary work environment.
Agricultural bioproducts from medicinal and aromatic plants
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP05)
Supervisors: Dr Maria Anastasiadi (CU), Dr Jane Ward (RRes), Dr Abdelaziz Yasri (UM6P)
This project relates to the discovery and utilisation of natural bioproducts from cultivated medicinal and aromatic plants of African origin. The study, which will involve training in natural products chemistry and biology, will concern the identification and isolation of bioactive compounds from a range of plants adapted to arid zones, targeting natural biostimulants/bioprotectants for downstream use in agriculture. The focus will be on identifying biostimulants from a panel of African grown medicinal plants, and determining their potential for use in agriculture as growth stimulants, primers and stress protectants. The project will profile polar and non-polar metabolites in a panel of Moroccan-grown crops and will identify and determine structures of bioactives that have been selected by a range of bioassays. Success will be the development of plant-based bio-products for enhanced crop growth, yield and resilience.
Dynamic Landscapes: agent based modelling of crop management
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP06)
Supervisors: Prof. Ron Corstanje (CU), Dr Alice Milne (RRes), Dr Rafiq Alami (UM6P)
The growing demand for food cannot be met by simply using more land, as this would have serious impacts on the environment and the climate. Agriculture is already one of the economic sectors with the largest environmental impact: e.g. producing 25%–33% of greenhouse gases, responsible for 70% of freshwater abstractions, driving deforestation and polluting aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems with agrochemicals. In this project the student will build an agent-based model of farmer decision making and link this to a model of agricultural impacts in a landscape to explore what factors are most important in delivering sustainable agricultural production. Modelling human decision making in relation to agriculture systems is a relatively new and exciting area of research. This studentship aims to explore and develop these methods and apply them to case studies about improving the sustainability of African agriculture. The project will develop methods that can be used to derive pathways to improve aspects of crop management within a landscape. These methods will be applied to case studies from the area around Marrakesh in Morocco.
Novel fertilizer formulations for enhanced N use efficiency
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP07a)
Supervisors: Prof. Guy Kirk (CU), Dr Tom Misselbrook (RRes), Dr Martin Jemo (UM6P)
The impacts of excess reactive nitrogen from fertilisers have environmental implications worldwide. Food production and emerging fertiliser markets in Africa can benefit substantially from increased fertiliser use, but this must be managed to ensure effective nutrient use and to minimise detrimental impacts on the environment. This project aims to explore the effectiveness of enhanced-efficiency nitrogen fertilisers and the interaction between nitrogen delivery and the capacity for plant uptake in conditions typical of Mediterranean and tropical climates, where nitrogen turnover is rapid. It will assess the interaction between different types of N fertilizers and the capacity of wheat plants, and other crops, for N uptake and N retention. The findings of this study will then be tested under field conditions in Africa. The successful candidate will receive tailored training, including techniques for measuring nitrogen cycling in soils and plants at a range of scales from laboratory to field.
Novel fertilizer formulations exploiting crop genotype differences in P uptake efficiency
Ref: SWEE0076 (SP07b) 
Supervisors: Prof. Guy Kirk (CU), Dr Sigrid Heuer (RRes), Dr Martin Jemo (UM6P)
Phosphate use efficiency depends on both internal plant mechanisms, whereby plant growth and yield differ for the same amount of P in the plant; and external mechanisms, whereby plants differ in their ability to extract P from the soil. While more efficient P extraction might lead to mining of soil P reserves if no fertilizer is added, it will also provide greater returns to P additions. Phosphate removal by even the most efficient crop genotypes is unlikely to exceed 20% of applied P, so small regular additions will gradually build-up the level of P in the soil. We propose to study the processes involving P dynamics under controlled-environment conditions, and to develop mathematical models to extrapolate the findings to other soils, plants and growth conditions; we will use upland rice as the model plant for this work. The relevant mechanisms are root-induced solubilisation of soil P, as well as root geometry and root hair effects. Solubilisation can be manipulated through the forms of N and P used in fertilizers products and we will therefore compare solubilisation processes for five compounds commonly found in P fertilizers (mono- and di-ammonium phosphate, mono- and di-calcium phosphate, and the apatites found in rock phosphate) in combination with ammonium-N or nitrate-N, and K salts. This project will improve our understanding and models of P uptake and use efficiencies in rice genotypes in highly-weathered soils, as influenced by fertilizer formulations and management. This will support the development of novel compound fertilizer formulations for African cropping systems.

At a glance

  • Application deadline05 May 2019
  • Award type(s)PhD
  • Start date01 Jul 2019
  • Duration of award4 years
  • EligibilityRest of World
  • Reference numberSWEE0076 + SPXX (See each studentship)


See individual projects.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have a first class or 2.1 UK honours degree or equivalent in Agricultural Science, Geography, Soil Science, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Environmental Science, Botany, Genetics, Geographical Information System or other related subjects and a minimum of English language proficiency (IELTS overall minimum score of 6.5).


The nine studentships are fully-funded by OCP Group via the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco. The funding provides tuition fees, a stipend of £17,000* (tax free), travel costs and generous research costs for four years.

OCP Group is one of the largest exporters of phosphate fertilisers in the world.

*We are primarily interested in applicants from African countries (national or legal residents of African countries), that can clearly demonstrate their experience/potential to contribute to capacity building in agricultural research. However, exceptional applications from students from other countries will be considered by the panel, if they meet the criteria for the studentship.

How to apply

To apply for one of these Cranfield University projects you will need to complete the online application form.

Please state the name of the project you will to apply for and the relevant reference number. SWEE0076 + SPXX (See each studentship)

Further information:
For informal enquiries please contact Mrs Zoe Payne