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Enriching farms and food in sub-Saharan Africa

Smallholder farmers cultivate resilience with locally-sourced fertilizers.

Rosaline Akochi, a farmer in Kenya, uses a material called biochar, which is a charcoal substance that attracts and retains water and nutrients in soil, to grow maize and cassava. Anderson Gande, another farmer in Kenya, applies biochar to revitalize his degraded soil. In Burkina Faso, Traore Siaka establishes composting heaps so crops can thrive. Through innovative soil management practices like these, these farmers are being more efficient with the fertilizer they have and use — growing more crops and income in the face of rising fertilizer costs and shortages, made worse by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through Feed the Future’s Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops, is working with the global platform PlantVillage to improve fertilizer use efficiency in Kenya and Burkina Faso.

Replenishing soil in Kenya

To create biochar, farmers dig a cone shaped hole on their land, fill with organic waste and start a fire. They let it burn until the organic waste turns to biochar charcoal, then they mix it with other natural fertilizers during the planting process. At the start of planting, farmers add biochar, planting fertilizer and seeds to the soil. When crops reach knee height, they add top-dressing fertilizer. Biochar, planting fertilizer and top-dressing fertilizer work together to create a long-term ecosystem in the soil for healthier farmland.

Feed the Future works with farmers like Akochi and Gande to incorporate biochar when they first plant crops and as they continue to grow — having reached 1,000 maize farmers to date.

Farmer Roseline Akochi in her maize field. Photo Credit: Mercyline Tata / PlantVillage

Farmer Roseline Akochi in her maize field. Photo Credit: Mercyline Tata / PlantVillage

Akochi also introduced parasitoids, small insects that are detrimental to pests like fall armyworm, as a form of integrated pest management to protect her crops and the environment, a technique she learned from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats for Crops. Now, Akochi’s maize is healthy and free from pests. She expects to double the yield on her quarter acre of land. ​

“Other farmers have come to my farm several times to learn about integrated pest management. They ask questions like what I used, because they see a difference between my soil and theirs. Farmers are also eager to adopt biochar fertilizer, which is cheap compared to inorganic fertilizer,” said Akochi.

She explained biochar has helped her crops immensely.

Farmer Anderson Gande in his maize field. Photo Credit: Marion Tabea / PlantVillage

Farmer Anderson Gande in his maize field. Photo Credit: Marion Tabea / PlantVillage

“I have a big family, who will not be hungry. We will get food and sell the surplus. Food will be at the table and money in the pocket. I will be able to pay school fees for my children,” Akochi added.

Gande uses biochar to revitalize the soil on his farm, which has become acidic with regular use. When crops are grown in acidic soil, crops don’t get the nutrients they need to grow. Biochar helps balance soil pH, exchange nutrients and retain water.

“When I look at my crops this season and remember what I had for the last two seasons, I am amazed,” shares Gande. “My crops are healthy and I expect bountiful maize yield.”

With what he’s learned from Feed the Future, Gande makes biochar from waste materials at home. He mixes it with animal manure and fertilizer to get an inexpensive and rich source of crop nutrients which returns more than fertilizer or biochar on their own. ​He’s also educated other farmers in his area about biochar and taught them how to make it.

“My crops amaze farmers,” Gande said proudly.

Composting creates change in Burkina Faso

Biochar and composting are reliable complements to chemical fertilizer because they can be produced locally, enabling farmers to take the growth of common crops like maize, cassava and sweet potato into their own hands — even during times of conflict. These alternatives are mitigating the reduced supply and rising prices of fertilizer in the farmers’ regions, while also improving crop yields.

In Burkina Faso, Traore Siaka first learned about soil fertility practices in a Feed the Future training program in Burkina Faso. There, 300 farmers in Siaka’s village gathered in small groups to learn how to make above-soil compost heaps. Now, by mixing crop waste with small amounts of fertilizer or manure, Siaka has a reliable and efficient source of fertilizer that improves his harvest yields.

Farmer Traore Siaka (pictured in blue shirt) working with other farmers to prepare compost.

Farmer Traore Siaka (pictured in blue shirt) working with other farmers to prepare compost. Photo Credit: PlantVillage

“My soils have become very productive to the point that when there is a little rain in my fields, the grass starts to grow the following days,” said Siaka.

He now trains and educates his community on compost preparation. ​

“For me, knowledge is free and should be shared. I give people ideas and I also train them to make compost and I do it for free,” explained Siaka. “As the saying goes, instead of giving someone fish, teach them to fish.”

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