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)

Multimedia

Audio
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

Video Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

update At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid