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Organic fertilizers to lift African farmers out of poverty

Design: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

In Burkina Faso, the soil is burning because of chemical fertilizers threatening the future of their farmers. A Burkinese agronomist has found a way to stop the fire, using an organic fertilizer.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the second episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

Between the large chlorophyll green leaves, hundreds of papayas are waiting to be picked. In the nearby fields, the peppers' skins glow under the midday sun and the groundnuts are generously shaped. In the distance, Aimé Kaboré stretches out his arm to grab one of his red and juicy mangoes. In Koubri, in central Burkina Faso, this young agronomist's plot of land attracts the curious. It is an oasis of cultivation in desert soil. "Two years ago, there was nothing here except a stable with oxen. The soil was too poor. Look, you can still see the relics of all this degraded land," he shows as he scrapes the dry, sandy soil around his farm.

Read the article in French: Des engrais bio pour sortir les agriculteurs africains de la pauvreté

The 33-year-old Burkinese agronomist has succeeded in restoring fertility to his land thanks to the natural and local fertilizer he created. Called Nekyam — "awakening" in the local language — it is produced at the heart of this test farm. "I’m warning you, it doesn't smell like roses," excuses the young boss as he heads towards his production workshop. Aimé Kaboré makes his fertilizer from organic waste that has been reduced to powder. Sitting on the floor, five employees take handfuls of biomass in bags and put them in basins. The production of the fertilizer is about to begin. "Our recipe is a mix of mushrooms, mineral matter and organic waste. We collect almost 800 kilos of garbage a day from the fruit-processing industries and households in Ouagadougou [the capital of Burkina Faso]. This helps to contribute to the sanitation of the city. 600,000 tonnes of waste are produced there every year and it's only increasing," says Fred Kiema, the production manager.

"It used to be the real desert"

Behind him, the workers spread the fertilizer on tarpaulins to dry in the sun. On this day, 31 January, the industrial dryer is down. So production is delayed. Usually, this Spartan-looking site produces nearly 500 kilos of organic fertilizer every day for more than 2,000 farmers. Issaka Ouedraogo is one of them. Machete in hand, this farmer in his fifties, mows his groundnut fields vigorously. The frail little man has lost nothing of the energy of his youth. His plot is his whole life. Although his land has been fertile black, covered with a large green carpet of bushy peanuts for the past two years, farming has not always been so easy.

"This used to be the real desert," he says, between two machete blows, “The earth was sandy. When I sowed, it didn't work." Or just a few dozen kilos of papaya, peanuts or cabbage at each harvest. In any case, it’s not enough to pay for school fees and health care, whenever his family needed it. "I realized that chemical fertilizer was destroying the land, so I switched to organic. I'm very proud to produce like this. Now I make a better living and my whole family is happy," he smiles before returning to his field work.

A 46% increase in yields

Nekyam promises farmers a 46% increase in yields compared to compost. But in Burkina Faso, chemical fertilizer remains the product most used by farmers. Its yields are much higher than those promised by organic fertilizers such as Nekyam. And yet, the effects of chemical fertilizers could have catastrophic consequences on the long run. "Chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be suitable for plants for a while. At first, yields will start to increase a lot. The problem is that in the end they kill the micro-organisms that plants, crops, need to grow. So the soils get poorer and in the long run, they'll end up being less and less productive," explains Niels Bourquin, programme officer at the Centre Ecologique Albert Schweitzer Suisse (CEAS), a Swiss foundation working in Africa.

One third of Burkina Faso's soil, or 9 million hectares of productive land, was already degraded by 2018, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). And with time, this observation is getting worse: in Burkina Faso, 360,000 new hectares of land are degraded every year. In the "land of upright men" as in the rest of Africa, agriculture provides a living for more than half of the working population. So Niels Bourquin and Aimé Kaboré are alarmed by the future and ask themselves: what will become of these farmers without fertile land in the decades to come?

Saving soil to fight poverty

"Every year, we lose the equivalent of more than 200,000 tonnes of food simply because our soils become less productive. If this process of land degradation continues, seven million Burkinese farmers will fall into poverty by 2035," warns Aimé Kaboré while walking the shady alleys of his papaya fields.

The Burkinese lost everything himself ten years ago. Freshly graduated from his agricultural engineering school, Aimé Kaboré started producing winter onions. To start his business, he borrowed 10 million FCFA (15,200 euros), and drew 2 million (3,000 euros) from his personal savings. But by the end of his first crop year, little or nothing had grown. So the young agricultural entrepreneur changed location and took out a new loan of 5 million FCFA (7,600 euros). He sowed his onions again. But the second harvest was no better than the first.

"I took samples from the soil. When I analyzed it, I quickly understood what was wrong. The level of organic matter was no more than 3%, whereas it is estimated that fertile soil contains about 20%! The soil was totally poor, completely acidic. And I was only deteriorating it by adding a little more chemical fertilizer each time. In fact, my crops were literally burning," he says. So Aimé Kaboré dropped his bags of chemical fertilizer the following year. To revitalize his burnt land, he began to scour the local farms for compost. "All the farmers told me they couldn't sell it because they didn't even have enough to cover their own fields," he says.

Making compost available

In a poor and arid country like Burkina Faso, where water is worth its weight in gold, producing compost is tedious. First you have to own enough animals to have enough manure. Then it takes time, and especially water: 45 days and 200 litres to produce even one tonne of compost. That's when I got the idea," says Kaboré. I realized that in our country, the compost technique existed but was not accessible to the majority of farmers, who therefore, often in spite of themselves, turned to chemical fertilizers to make their crops bear fruit. From there, the agronomist multiplied the tests to find a way to make compost accessible to all. By replacing manure with organic waste and thanks to a recipe he prefers to keep secret, Aimé Kaboré was able to produce a ton of compost in 24 hours and with only 20 litres of water. Nekyam was born.

Today, the 30-something Burkinese is fighting to deconstruct the mentality of his country's farmers. "We're raising awareness. Many still think that by opting for organic fertilizer, they will give up their yields. But in reality, they are restoring their land for the future. And I'm not talking about a Star Wars future, just a few years," he says, as he watches traders at the Koubri market harvesting his juicy papayas. The agronomist repeats the proud look one last time: "Two years ago, this land was desert."

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world