Ethiopia: Mapping soil conditions helps farmers improve soil health

| November 6, 2017

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Tefera Gonfa’s oxen are ploughing the dark soil, turning it to prepare for planting. Mr. Gonfa lives in Fodu Gora kebele in Woliso district, 120 kilometres southwest of Addis Ababa.

Here in Oromia region, the black soil contrasts with the short green grasses growing between the fields. But beneath the surface, the soil lacks many important nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, zinc, and boron.

Ethiopian farmers like Mr. Gonfa use several strategies to improve soil health. Many use a product called blended fertilizer to supply their soil with the nutrients it lacks.

Starting in 2012, the Ethiopian Soil Information System analyzed soil fertility throughout the country. Analysts mapped soil conditions in four regions: Tigray, SNNP, Amhara, and Harari, testing samples from 18,000 kebeles, or villages.

Ethiopian farmers have used fertilizers for decades. Mr. Gonfa, like many others, relied on DAP, or diammonium phosphate, and urea, but these provide only phosphorus and nitrogen. The Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency has recommended these products for many years. However, soil fertility maps show that, in many areas, the soil also needs nutrients such as sulfur, boron, potassium, zinc, and copper.

Tegbaru Bellete is a senior project officer with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency. He says that soils in 96% of the country lack sulfur.

As the Ethiopian Soil Information System completes its analysis of soil samples, it is recommending fertilizer blends that are most useful in each area. The recommendations are specific to each kebele, since each soil sample can lead to different recommendations. Local development agents share this information with farmers.

Five fertilizer plants have opened to produce blended fertilizers that match the needs identified by the soil fertility analysis. The Woliso plant blends and distributes four types of fertilizer: NPS (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur) plus boron; NPS plus boron and zinc; NPS plus zinc; and NPS plus zinc and phosphate. During the busiest months, from December to May, the plant produces 800 tonnes of blended fertilizer a day. It will further scale up production as more farmers learn about the benefits of blended fertilizer.

Mr. Gonfa buys a blend of NPS plus zinc and boron. He uses one quintal (100 kilograms) per hectare. Last year, blended fertilizer cost 800 birr (US$29) for 50 kilograms. Farmers are happy that the price has gone down this year to about 500 birr (US$18).

Mr. Gonfa will apply the blended fertilizer when he plants wheat, teff, maize, and potatoes. Using blended fertilizer is just one of several steps he will take to boost soil health. He also applies composted manure during the final ploughing before planting.

Forty days after planting, when it is time to weed, he will also apply urea and pesticides.

Blended fertilizer has replaced DAP in Mr. Gonfa’s routine. DAP is no longer available in Woliso district because the government wants farmers to buy blended fertilizer instead. Mr. Gonfa says he has noticed a big difference between blended fertilizer and DAP. He says, “Blended fertilizer contains more minerals, so I get a higher yield and the seeds are very big.”

Dawit Getahun is the development agent in Fodu Gora kebele. He says everyone in the kebele is using blended fertilizer because of the degraded soil. He says most also use urea and composted manure, but while composted manure is inexpensive to produce, it requires a lot of work.

Mr. Getahun adds that composted manure can improve soil health, and is made of materials found on the farm. He explains: “Composted manure is cheap to use. It’s very advantageous…. But it needs lots of manpower to transfer from one pit to another and to transport it to the field. It’s very labour-intensive. For one hectare of land, a farmer needs 10 tonnes of compost, and it’s difficult to get farmers to produce more than a small amount.”

Mr. Getahun says many farmers produce a small amount of composted manure to use for coffee, home gardens, and small pieces of land, relying on blended fertilizer for cereal crops. He explains, “When they buy fertilizer, they need only money. There is no need for manpower. There is no need for time.”

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.

Photo: A son and oxen prepare Tefera Gonfa’s fields for planting in June 2017