The rainy weather does not seem to worry Mama Collette Malanda, and neither do the cries of the sheep, goats, and pigs. The 54-year-old woman is in her gardens, located in a lively district of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. Bent and wearing black trousers, she works the soil to properly bury her organic fertilizer.
She is using composted manure because she says synthetic fertilizers were not effective at improving her soil fertility over the long term. Composted manure is affordable and provides her soil with the nutrients it needs.
To make her organic fertilizer, she collects droppings from sheep, goats, pigs, and cows, as well as cassava leaves and mabokes (a Lingala/Kongo word that means “steamed fish”). Then she mixes the ingredients and buries them in the soil. Fermentation takes at least a week and a half and requires plenty of water. Around the end of the second week, she starts to sow endive, spinach, sorrel, and tomato seeds in little holes in the compost.
Two years ago, Mrs. Malanda was using synthetic fertilizers, but her results were mixed. She explains: “I used to buy these fertilizers at the agricultural centre and come back to use them. At the beginning, the vegetables were good quality, but after a while, the soil was too used to the fertilizers and the vegetables were growing with yellow leaves. The clients were not coming to buy anymore. This is why I went from using synthetic fertilizers to organic fertilizers.”
Thanks to the organic fertilizer, her vegetables are green and appealing. She says that organic fertilizers are also economical: “Here, I spend nothing else than the seeds I buy at the market for between 50 and 100 FCFA ($0.85 US).” She concludes with a smile, “I just need to go in the goat farmers’ pen and I have the solution.”
Pascaline Koumba is a 48-year-old gardener who is proud to follow the advice and techniques of the woman she affectionately calls “Maman Coco.” She says: “At the market, her vegetables were all green while mine were a bit pale. It was while talking that she explained her technique to me—and today I am proud because my gardens have healthy vegetables that attract many clients. Really the organic fertilizers are a godsend for me.”
Fulbert N’senda is an agronomist at the Congolese ministry of agriculture and livestock farming. He explains that the soil needs to be fed well, just like the human body. He says: “The use of organic fertilization is being developed because the mix of animal droppings with cassava leaves and maboke contributes to stimulating the organic fraction [of the soil], humidifying and nourishing the soil, and feeding the plants better. That is why you see the almost permanent smile on these ladies’ faces when they see how their endives, spinach, tomatoes—their vegetables as a whole, grow well.”
Mr. N’senda maintains that synthetic fertilizers contain the necessary minerals to feed the vegetables, but contribute to degrading the soil. Understanding that they can contribute to soil degradation is why Mrs. Malanda realized that her vegetables would wither and become yellow, losing their vitality and appeal for her clients.
Mr. N’senda says that healthy soil depends on the consistent availability of the minerals needed to feed plants, especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Burying organic matter such as leftover vegetables, cassava leaves, animal droppings, and kitchen scraps can contribute to improving the physical properties of the soil, which leads to better yields and healthier plants.