Preserve soil fertility!

Why do East African smallholder families seldom achieve sufficient yields, even in climatically favourable growing areas? There are several reasons. One of them is decreasing soil fertility.


"The production and use of compost combined with manure is one of the most important innovations I learned in Biovision's cultivation courses." Fatuma Nabakibi, Ssukka Village, Kayunga, Uganda (Photo: Peter Lüthi)

By Peter Lüthi, Biovision

For many people in Africa, knowledge of agricultural nutrient cycles and related cultivation techniques is not part of their cultural heritage. For example, sub-Saharan Africa, compared to Central Europe, was long sparsely populated and accordingly had very large land reserves. When the soil was no longer productive, farmers simply cultivated new fields.

Many people also belong to nomadic groups who have lived off their livestock for generations – such as the Maasai in Tanzania. Increasingly, they are being forced to give up their traditions and take up farming, where their extensive knowledge of animal husbandry is of little use.

New knowledge for new challenges

African farmers are facing greater challenges today. Fertile fields are becoming scarcer and the population is growing, forcing farmers to remain on their barren fields and try to reap more from them. But this can only be achieved with expert care and by nourishing the soil. The knowledge to do so is often lacking.

The consequences of climate change, including extreme droughts, floods and the loss of fertile soil through erosion, further exacerbate difficulties for smallholder families. These difficult circumstances would particularly benefit from the state’s agricultural authorities and advisors. However, they offer little support. Small farmers often live in remote areas. With hardly any political influence, they are often marginalised and left to fend for themselves.

Smallholder farmers at an impasse

Agricultural corporations from industrialised countries have long stepped in and built a widespread network for selling their synthetic products. (Pesticides in Kenya – a big problem) These are aggressively promoted by companies’ own agricultural extension agents. In rural areas of East Africa, for example, “agro-vet-shops”, in which agricultural and veterinary products are sold together with advice, can be found everywhere.

Those who can afford them buy artificial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides to fight falling yields. This, however, leads smallholder families into dependency, sometimes with dire consequences. The longer they buy the expensive products, the less they can afford them.

Compost instead of artificial fertilizer

Cultivated plants extract a wide variety of nutrients from the soil. To replace them, fertilizer must be applied. Artificial fertilizers contain only a small set of nutrients. The other substances, which are also important for maintaining fertility, are not added to the soil and are gradually depleted. The soils become increasingly infertile as they are leached.

In contrast, compost – especially when mixed with manure – contains the full palette of nutrients that can be used to maintain or even increase soil fertility. Smallholder families can produce it themselves. Although it requires time and a lot of labour, it is easy on the farmers’ budgets. They can save expenses they would otherwise have to spend for costly inputs from the agro-vet shops.

Knowledge creates food

In its projects in Africa, Biovision focuses on imparting knowledge and practical skills to smallholder farmers. They receive scientifically tested guidance that has been tried out in practice about how to make compost and liquid fertilizer from plants, how to work the soil properly, and how to combat erosion by planting terraces, hedges and mixed crops or by intercropping. Natural pest control with homemade plant-based sprays is also a regular topic. The courses are often supplemented with modules on product marketing and an introduction to an interest-free savings and lending system for farmer groups.

Madogo Issa, an established farmer from Mkunjuni Village in Tanzania, attended a Biovision course in organic farming (LINK: ) in 2015 and successfully converted her vegetable gardening and arable farming to organic production. Looking back, she says, “I learned a lot about organic farming and became a successful entrepreneur. Before the training, I was in the dark. The project opened my eyes and empowered me to improve my life.”

Farmer Madogo Issa
Farmer Madogo Issa (Photo: Patrick Rohr)