Crisis Resilience Starts on the Ground
Biochar in Benin, lime in Ethiopia and vermiculture in Kenya
The war going on in Europe casts a long shadow all the way to the African continent. Many countries there are severely affected by a shortfall in supplies and peaking prices for grain and fertilizers.
The crisis certainly requires immediate interventions but it is also evident that there is more resilience needed in the long run.
The experience of the global programme Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security (ProSoil) shows how techniques, practices and concepts for soil protection and rehabilitation can strengthen agricultural resilience when combined with sound agricultural advisory and public and private sector investments.
It is evident the countries of the global South are capable of sustainably mitigating the impact of crises like the one created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One step towards increased resilience in the agricultural sector is to substitute minerals with organic fertilizers
The current rise of commodity prices puts additional strain on resource-poor smallholders. In addition, difficult conditions such as acidic and depleted soils reduce the effectiveness of mineral fertilizers, leading to declining returns on investment. Organic fertilizers can improve resource-use efficiency, thereby lowering costs and even increasing revenue for farmers.
Three implementation examples from ProSoil show how farmers can benefit from such technologies.
Recycle and Reuse – Biochar Nourishes and Rebalances the Soil
© GIZ / Benin / Waliou Abiola
As is the case in many tropical regions, much of Benin’s soil is acidic — which has many negative effects on local agriculture.
One way to combat this is to use crop residues such as corn cobs and cotton stalks to produce biochar through a pyrolysis process. When applied to the soil, the biochar’s high porosity allows for better retention of water and nutrients in the soil. In addition, its alkaline nature helps balance the pH values of acidic tropical soils.
Thanks to these and other soil protection and rehabilitation measures, an average increase in yield of 53% has been achieved. The development of a national soil protection and rehabilitation reference document for ministerial institutions, ongoing and new projects and service providers commissioned by them, is intended to ensure that soil protection and rehabilitation measures are anchored in a sustainable political manner. Furthermore, the capacities of two agricultural development agencies for the training of agricultural specialists and farmers will be expanded further.
Lime to the Rescue of Acidic Soils
© GIZ / Ethiopia / Abinet Shiferaw
Acidic soils are a challenge many Ethiopian farmers are faced with as well. Lime can alleviate this type of soil degradation and increase fertilizer use efficiency. A solution that has been largely unknown in Ethiopia.
Lime has tremendous potential to rehabilitate acidic soil and therefore enable Ethiopia to achieve food security and food sovereignty. Plus, this practice helps reduce mineral fertilizer imports into the country.
On average, 43% of the fertilizers applied to acidic soil are not utilized by the plants, it goes to waste. Restoring the soil pH of the 6 million hectare acidic soils — which is roughly the size of Togo — by using lime could hence save millions of tons of fertilizer and would increase crop yields.
Farmer-led trials and capacity development have created awareness and demand among farmers and the development of different supply chains with varying degrees of public and private sector involvement.
Currently, specific intervention areas are trialing the sales of lime via private agro-dealers with the local government agents facilitating the process. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government distributes lime sourced mainly from cement factories at a subsidized price.
Completely government-run supply systems are slowly receding as crushers have often proven inefficient and producing beyond market price.
The government has also decreed that no one should distribute lime for free in order to wean farmers off dependencies and encourage the development of sustainable supply chains. To achieve impact at scale, the government supports the introduction of lime spreaders, soil pH testing, policy advice on tax reductions and involving micro-finance institutions.
Vermiculture – Little Helpers Underground
© GIZ / Ethiopia / Abinet Shiferaw
Just like biochar and lime, vermicompost is an effective option to improve soil quality and to complement, reduce or replace the use of mineral fertilizers.
This has become evident from the experience of ProSoil in Western Kenya. Maize is the staple crop in the region grown by smallholder farmers using a sequence of Diammonium phosphate and Calcium ammonium nitrate. Both are also applied in the cultivation of the most common cash crops, sugar cane and tea.
However, their continuous use in combination with the leaching of soil organic matter has led to soil acidification. As a result, plants are increasingly unable to utilize the nutrients available or added to the soil. In such scenarios, mineral fertilizers have lost much of their effectiveness and farmers tend to produce at a loss.
Compost production using earthworms has proven to be a viable pathway for soil rehabilitation: Earthworms significantly decrease the time span required to produce quality compost and generate a liquid by-product that can be used as biofertilizer.
Experience shows that the application of vermicompost at planting and the use of liquid biofertilizer during the growth period performs highly effective in replacing the conventional mineral fertilizer sequence. The biomass required for compost production is usually generated from green manure cover crops, agroforestry trees and shrubs as well as purchases from neighbouring farms.
Back to the beginning and to how this relates to Russia’s war on Ukraine
As part of a BMZ Special Initiative to mitigate the global impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine, ProSoil Kenya scales out its efforts to promote the use of vermicompost alongside lime application and agro-forestry.
Alternative fertilization methods can supply cultivated soils with nutrients and rebalance the pH value of acidic soils. Less mineral fertilizer needs to be purchased and yields are being increased substantially. As a result, farmers become more resilient to all kinds of shocks in prices or varying import volumes of fertilizers and wheat.
The methods prove to be valuable in the context of a sustainable transformation. At the time of crisis, they show their full potential. Building crisis resilience does quite literally start on the ground and is fundamental in reducing the damage that conflict can have on food security.
Anneke Trux, Programme Manager, Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security (ProSoil), email@example.com