Kathryn Burnham | August 22, 2017
Demitu Desasa turns the earth between her bean plants, showing off the silty soil. Soil health is a major concern for farmers in Leman Ayetu kebele, and across Ethiopia.
This soil has been farmed for thousands of years, and in many places it is depleted of nutrients. So farmers rely on several methods to improve their soil fertility, such as adding fertilizer and composted manure.
Last season, Mrs. Desasa invested 800 birr ($34 US) in a new kind of blended fertilizer, which contains exactly the minerals her soil needs. The Ethiopian Soil Information System, called EthioSIS, analyzed soil fertility in four regions of the country, taking samples from thousands of kebeles. Kebeles are the smallest administrative units in Ethiopia, equivalent to a community or village. EthioSIS recommends tailored fertilizer combinations that are specific to each kebele.
The system provides this information to farmers, as well as to regional blending factories that create fertilizer blends tailored to local soil needs.
Mrs. Desasa recently received 1,400 birr ($59 US) from a rotating savings group. Each of the 30 members in her group contributes 50 birr per week. Mrs. Desasa used her turn to receive the weekly total to purchase blended fertilizer: the NPS plus zinc blend. This includes the combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphate, and zinc which EthioSIS recommends for her kebele.
Mrs. Desasa heard about blended fertilizer from the local development agent and from a farm radio program. She says, “I have to do every improvement so that I can have a better harvest and a better income.”
The mother of four grows beans, wheat, teff, and coffee on just a half-acre of land. She applied 50 kilograms of blended fertilizer, along with 50 kilograms of urea, to her wheat and teff fields.
Blended fertilizer is not cheap. Mrs. Desasa received 50 kilograms last year for her 800 birr ($34 US). Farmers are happy that the price for 50 kgs dropped this year to about 500 birr ($21 US).
Mrs. Desasa got good results from her investment, as her harvest improved by 75%. Her harvest typically feeds only the family, but last year she was able to sell half to pay the land tax and education fees, and to purchase clothes. She will use the rest of her harvest to make meals at home.
Mrs. Desasa now relies on urea and blended fertilizer for her grains. She also makes composted manure. But, because composted manure is labour-intensive to produce and transport, she can only make enough for her coffee crop.
Dawit Getahun is the development agent in nearby Fodu Gora kebele, in Woliso district. Farmers in his area are using several products to boost their soil fertility, including urea, blended fertilizer, biofertilizers for their beans, and composted manure.
He explains: “Compost is cheap to use—it’s very advantageous. It doesn’t need money, only manpower. But it needs lots of manpower…. When [farmers] buy fertilizer, they need only money. There is no need for manpower. There is no need for time.”
Dedefa Midhaka lives down the road, in the same kebele as Mrs. Desasa. And like Mrs. Desasa, he learned about blended fertilizer last year from the development agent, and got other important information from the radio. The combination of sources persuaded him to invest in the product.
He says: “I heard from the radio that blended fertilizer is better than [diammonium phosphate, known as] DAP, and urea because it contains more than five minerals that are needed for the soil. So I learned that it is important. I also learned that it increased the harvest of other farmers, so that convinced me.”
His farm is much larger than that of Mrs. Desasa. He has a half-acre for each of his crops: teff, wheat, and potato. He also grows enset and beans. His teff and wheat harvests have more than doubled since he started using blended fertilizer, from three and four quintals (300 and 400 kgs), respectively, to seven and nine quintals (700 and 900 kgs).
Mr. Midhaka is happy with his increased harvest—and he is happy to know he is improving the health of his soil. He says, “I learned that blended fertilizer replenishes the farmland, replacing degraded minerals in the soil. So beyond harvesting more, I am learning [that] I am replenishing my land, too.”
This was part of a project to use information and communication technologies to scale-up agricultural technology in Ethiopia, which was made possible with the support of Digital Green through USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund, a component of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.