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Global impact on fertiliser has given rise to a new phenomenon in Malawi

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The use of human urine as an organic fertiliser is gaining popularity among smallholder farmers and environmentalists. Here’s why.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has had far-reaching repercussions on global markets, particularly impacting vital food crops and fertilisers, thereby threatening food security on a, global scale.

As per analysts from Rabobank, approximately 20 percent of the global nitrogen fertiliser exports are contributed by Russia, with an additional 40 percent of the world’s exported potash being supplied by Russia and Belarus combined. However, due to the war and subsequent sanctions, the availability of these fertilisers worldwide has been significantly diminished.

The United Nations recently released a report highlighting the severe this shortage has on low-income countries, many of which are already grappling with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, as domestic price levels remain prohibitively high. For Africa, a region already facing economic challenges, the reliance on fertiliser imports from Russia has led to considerable difficulties in securing alternative sources for the upcoming 2022-2023 farming season.

The repercussions are particularly stark in sub-Saharan Africa, where agricultural production has been severely hampered due to limited access to fertilisers, exacerbating an already dire situation. In fact, a global report on food crises estimates that approximately 205 million people in 45 countries are currently experiencing acute food insecurity, jeopardising their lives and livelihoods.

According to a Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report, the inaccessibility and escalating prices of fertiliser in Malawi have become a looming threat to approximately 4 million people in 2023, constituting about 20 percent of the country’s population, putting them at risk of hunger.

During the 2022-2023 farming season, Malawians witnessed fertiliser prices doubling by 100 percent, reaching a maximum of USD 60 per 50-kilogram bag. Concerns persist that these prices could further rise to USD 70 in the upcoming 2023-2024 farming season.

Nevertheless, amidst the challenging fertiliser supply and the soaring prices caused by a severe shortage of foreign exchange for imports, Malawi has experienced an unexpected surge in the utilisation of organic alternatives, including the use of human urine as a fertiliser for crop production.

Farmers have sought refuge in urine fertiliser as a viable substitute for chemical fertilisers. Besides being expensive, chemical fertilisers have been linked to environmental degradation, pollution from runoff, and the emission of greenhouse gases, all of which contribute to the exacerbation of climate change.

Esmie Katumbu, a 35-year-old Maize farmer from Neno, a southern district in Malawi, could not afford fertiliser throughout the 2022-2023 farming season. With the little savings she had, she prioritised buying food for her household and other basic needs.

“I could not afford a bag of fertiliser and I gave up,” Katumbu told FairPlanet. “But when I heard of urine fertiliser, I said I must try the new fertiliser. I gathered big plastic pails and placed them in my house and others in my relatives’ houses. Today, I can proudly say I have enough food in my house.”

THE URINE FERTILISER PHENOMENON

The utilisation of urine, known as Bionitrate fertiliser and spearheaded by a graduate from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources operating under the name Environmental Industries, has significantly enlightened local farmers and the government of Malawi.

The initiative aims to promote biotechnology and develop fertilisers that are economically sustainable, environmentally friendly, and safe for application.

According to Goodfellow Phiri, Director at Environmental Industries, Bionitrate fertilisers are completely safe to use and do not pose any health or environmental risks, despite concerns raised by certain farmers regarding health and ethical aspects.

Phiri explains that after urine is collected from toilets, it is stored in tightly sealed containers for a few weeks to undergo chemical processes, transforming the urine from an acidic to an alkaline state, resulting in a highly saline product that is germ-free and devoid of odour.

“In the alkalinity state, the PH is beyond seven and the product is salty. In this salty state, all the germs [die off],” Phiri states. “Moreover, this fertiliser contributes to soil conservation by raising its pH through its chemical composition, mimicking the effects of agricultural lime on acidic soils.”

Phiri’s company collects 40 litres of urine per day, resulting in an annual production of 14,600 litres of Bionitrate urine. The urine fertiliser is packaged in one-litre bottles and sold for MWK600, equivalent to approximately $0.58. Applying this fertiliser to a one-acre farmland costs about MK80,000 ($78.06).

According to Phiri, the use of this fertiliser has been embraced by more than 1,000 farmers in various districts, including Lilongwe, Neno, Mchinji, and Mzimba. Additionally, delegations from Togo, Zambia, Mozambique, and Japan have visited to learn more about the benefits of urine fertilizer.

He mentioned that until last year, Malawi did not have legislation in place that legalised the use of organic fertilisers. However, this situation changed when a law acknowledging the importance of organic fertilisers was passed in parliament.

“Organic fertiliser, such as urine, has all the capacity to turn around our soils in Malawi, which are mostly degraded and acidic,” he said. “Given [the chance], we can contribute one percent of the Affordable Input programme to supply this organic fertiliser (urine) for farmers to use.”

WHAT DO FARMERS HAVE TO SAY?

Winston Davie Banda, a farmer from Malawi’s Lilongwe district who is benefiting from urine fertilizer, expressed that urine fertiliser is exceptional due to its ability to facilitate the recovery of nutrients in the soil.

“I used to rely on chemical fertilisers in my gardens but the moment I learnt of the urine fertilizer, I completely stopped and dwelt on urine alone, and the harvests cannot be compared with the previous ones,” Banda told FairPlanet.

“I can testify that soils became very rich, and I can even grow crops without applying any fertiliser,” he added. “I have my own containers at home and I harvest for use in my gardens.”

Another advantage of this fertiliser is that it consists of an aqueous solution comprising 95 percent water, which provides an opportunity for crops to survive during periods of erratic rainfall or drought.

IS URINE FERTILISER ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?

Phiri from Environmental Industries highlighted that the majority of soils in Malawi suffer from degradation and acidity issues, resulting in an accumulation of approximately pH 5 (Percentage of Hydrogen). He explained that this acidity is primarily caused by the use of chemical fertilisers.

Urine fertiliser. on the other hand, is considered to be environmentally safe because it has a pH value above 7, making it alkaline – Phiri said. Due to this alkalinity, he added, when urine fertiliser is applied to the soil, it has the ability to neutralise the acidity present in degraded soils. As a result, he claimed, the application of urine fertiliser helps in the recovery of the soils by balancing their pH levels and making them more suitable for plant growth.

Mathews Malata, an environmental expert from Malawi, reinforced Phiri’s observations, stating that the extensive use of chemical fertilisers has resulted in the depletion of vital soil minerals in the country. This depletion, he said, has had detrimental effects, including the pollution of water bodies due to run-off and the release of greenhouse gases.

Malata further mentioned that in the year 2022-2023, many farmers in Malawi have been exploring different organic fertilisers, including urine, as a preferable alternative to chemical fertilisers.

However, he cautioned that there is a need for increased research collaboration between agricultural experts and Malawi’s National Commission for Science and Technology. He suggested conducting a rapid survey to analyse the farming practices employed by farmers in the previous season and extract valuable insights from their experiences.

Malata added that this opportunity would allow scientists to conduct laboratory tests and determine the quality and worthiness of the products being consumed by people. “Things can look nice from the fields, but what is the composition of all of the elements found in the fertiliser?”

He emphasised the importance of blending traditional knowledge with scientific knowledge to develop a standardised product that effectively enables communities to utilise urine fertilizer.

Speaking to FairPlanet, Gertrude Kambauwa, Director of Land Resources at Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, praised the advancements in urine fertilizer technologies. However, she noted that the ministry is still in the process of formulating official recommendations regarding its usage.

“We appreciate the technology being conducted on urine fertiliser and we have noted a number of farmers are taking it, and they are seeing the benefits out of it through a number of crop demonstrations,” she said. “As Ministry of Agriculture, we are yet to give recommendations on the fertilizer.”

Meanwhile, research into the potential uses and benefits of urine fertiliser continues across the globe.

The Rich Earth Institute, a Vermont-based non-profit organisation, has dedicated over a decade to exploring alternative waste management solutions, notably including their pioneering urine-recycling initiative. With a dedicated research division, the Institute focuses on studying the utilisation of urine as a fertiliser to promote crop growth.

According to Sustainable Sanitation and Water Management (SSAWM), a study compiled by Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), Robert Gensch (Xavier University) and Dorothee Spuhler (seecon international gmbh) shows that the use of urine as fertiliser may encourage income generation, improve yield and productivity of plants and reduces dependence on costly chemical fertilisers.

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES

Amid the widespread praise, the scientific community has identified a plethora of risks associated with the practice of utilising human urine as a fertilizer.

A 2016 study published in the Euro-Mediterranean Journal for Environmental Integration highlighted that urine fertiliser may pose a risk of soil salinisation in certain cases, particularly when the soil has a tendency to accumulate salts. The study revealed that due to its high salt content, the use of urine as a fertiliser can potentially lead to soil sodification (a process where the soil becomes excessively alkaline), especially in arid and semi-arid regions where limited water resources hinder effective salt washout.

The research further explained that excessive urine in the soil can introduce toxic levels of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, which can adversely affect plant health and growth. The toxic level of nitrogen was estimated to be approximately four times the normal fertilisation rate.

The study, conducted in Burkina Faso after the crop harvest, revealed a significant increase in soil salinity and sodicity over an extended period as a result of continuous application of human urine. The levels of soil salinity and sodicity were observed to rise approximately fivefold, emphasising the long-term impact of consistent urine fertiliser application.

Another study conducted in 2018 by Victor Duniya Sheneni, Theophilus Boniface Momoh, and Emmanuel Edegbo from Kogi University in Nigeria revealed that applying excessive volumes of human urine as fertiliser to agricultural land may result in increased sodium levels in the soil, which can subsequently impact plant growth. Sodium was found to hinder water uptake in roots and interfere with the absorption of other essential nutrients, warranting further testing and caution before widespread recommendation of urine fertiliser use.

The research also highlighted that cultural beliefs and concerns regarding the odour of urine can contribute to resistance among some communities to adopt the use of urine as fertiliser.

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