News / Africa

Feed the Soil, Feed the Crops

Using Evergreen Agriculture, Rhoda Mang’yana grows maize near Faidherbia trees to improve crop yields and soil fertility on her farm. (Credit: Jim Richardson)
Using Evergreen Agriculture, Rhoda Mang’yana grows maize near Faidherbia trees to improve crop yields and soil fertility on her farm. (Credit: Jim Richardson)
Joe DeCapua
If African farmers are going to feed the continent, they may first want to feed the soil. Studies show farmland is often depleted of vital nutrients. But researchers say a combination of organic farming methods may help.



Since the global food crisis several years ago, greater investment is being made in smallholder farms. Most of the farms in sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder, consisting of about one or two hectares. One of the goals is to boost yields without necessarily clearing more land to grow additional crops.

Washington State University researchers say that can happen with greater use of an agricultural system called perenniation. It mixes food crops with trees and perennial plants. Soil scientist John Reganold co-wrote an article about it in the journal Nature.

“This system that we call perenniation is one of those systems where you actually plant perennials and it increases both food security and it builds the soil at the same time,” he said.

There’s an old saying that you are what you eat. Plants need nourishment, too, and they get it from the soil.

He said, “One of the major problems is that the soils are fairly poor in most of the regions. And so how do you grow food on poor soils? There have to be food production systems that can build the soil and improve the yield.”

Reganold said that poor soil may have resulted from years of weathering that leaches many of the nutrients. But in some cases farmers may have done more harm than good.

“They have been actually using farming practices where they’re not putting in organic matter. They’re not putting in fertilizers. They can’t afford those things. And it just runs the soil down more. So they’re actually mining the soil. So they’re worsening the situation,” he said.

He said that the major nutrients that farmland needs are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

“The big one,” he said, “is nitrogen. That’s the nutrient that the plant demands the most and that’s the fertilizer that’s mostly needed.”

He estimated that up to two billion dollars worth of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is lost from African soil each year.

That’s where perenniation comes in. It adds nutrients back into the soil.

“We came up with the term perenniation, but the systems have been around for a while. We use the term perenniation. It defines three systems that are already used in Africa. The oldest of the three is called evergreen agriculture and it’s where farmers actually plant trees with their crops. And they’ve been doing this to the best of my knowledge for 60 years, but it’s starting to gain ground,” he said.

It’s gaining widespread use in countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Zambia, among others. The trees are planted among maize, millet or sorghum. They not only add nitrogen to the soil through their roots, but also through their leaves when they fall off and decay. At other times of the year the trees can shade plants from the harsh sun. Reganold said colonial English and French farmers believed crops should be separated from trees, not mixed together.

Besides planting trees, the perenniation also calls for the use of the doubled-up and the push-pull systems. The doubled-up system has farmers mixing pigeon pea plants among soybean and maize crops. Pigeon pea, a large shrub, adds nutrients to the soil, but can later be used for fuel and fodder. Some parts are edible.

The push-pull system also uses perennials, such as napier grass, which is grown around the maize, and desmodium, which is planted among the stalks. Reganold says desmodium 
is a natural pest management system. It pushes away the stem bore moth from the crops, while the napier grass pulls or lures the moth to the perimeter of the crops. Thus push / pull.

Reganold gave an example of one woman who had great success with perenniation.

“She’s a grandmother in her 50s. Her name is Rhoda Mang’yana and she started using this system about 20 years ago. She used actually two of the systems – the doubled-up legume and she also started using these evergreen agriculture trees. And her yields initially were about a ton of maize per hectare. Now with a good year she gets four tons per hectare. Four times what she was getting,” he said.

Reganold and his colleagues said millions of dollars should be invested in perenniation each year. He hopes development NGOs will take up the cause. Reganold co-wrote the Nature article with Jerry Glover of USAID and Cindy Cox of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs