Child Daniel Phiri doesn’t go to his grass-thatched pit latrine when he hears the call of nature. Instead, he rushes to his bathroom and urinates into a five-litre plastic bucket. Mr. Phiri says every member of his family does the same. When the bucket is full, he uses the urine to make fertilizer that works like urea.
Mr. Phiri comes from Chisela village in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, where he grows maize, beans, groundnuts, and vegetables. He also uses acacia tree leaves to make basal dressing or starter fertilizer, which is applied early in the season at planting. Making his own fertilizers saves money and avoids chemicals that can be hazardous to human health.
According to Mr. Phiri, using chemical fertilizer to achieve a bumper harvest is a waste because making urine and leaf fertilizer is simple and cheap.
He says: “I started making my own fertilizer using human urine and acacia tree leaves in 2014 after learning from Face-to-Face [a local non-profit organization]. Since that time, I stopped purchasing chemical fertilizer such as urea, which is very expensive.”
A 50-kilogram bag of chemical fertilizer costs about 20,000 kwacha (US$28). Mr. Phiri explains: “Previously, I needed about four bags of fertilizer for my maize field and it [cost] a lot of money…. Now, I don’t spend any money on chemical fertilizer because of the leaf and urine fertilizer which I make on my own.”
Mr. Phiri explains: “To make leaf fertilizer, I put water and acacia leaves in a plastic bucket or drum to avoid rust caused by metal buckets, and I cover it using a plastic sheet. Every day, I open and stir the water and leaves. After 14 days, the mixture becomes fertilizer and on the 15th day, I take it and apply it in my maize, legume, and vegetable gardens.”
To make urine fertilizer, Mr. Phiri says he waits for three days after the bucket is full. Then, he explains, “I dilute the urine with water … in a ratio of one to eight, meaning that for a five-litre bucket of urine, I dilute it with 40 litres of water.”
Madalitso Zulu is the coordinator of the Face-to-Face project. She says many fields in the area have lost soil fertility, and farmers cannot continue relying on chemical fertilizer because the prices rise every year.
Mrs. Zulu explains: “Farming is a business, and if farmers spend more money on inputs such as chemical fertilizer, they are likely to [incur] losses. We teach farmers cost-effective ways of doing farming, and making urine and leaf fertilizer has changed the lives of many farmers in areas where we are implementing our projects.”
Gadisoni Lomani is a farmer from the nearby village of Kwandekwalema. He says that when the Face-to-Face project came to his area, it trained many farmers to make fertilizer using human urine. They use it as top dressing fertilizer to replace the expensive chemical fertilizer that farmers buy in the shops. Top dressing or side-dressing fertilizer is usually applied 21 days after planting maize in Malawi.
Mr. Lomani explains: “We were advised that whenever we just want to urinate, we should not waste our urine but keep it in a plastic bucket and use it to make fertilizer. This has helped me a lot, since in the past I was not able to purchase chemical fertilizer.”
Mr. Lomani adds that, for maize, the fertilizer he makes with acacia leaves works like a basal dressing fertilizer such as NPK, while the fertilizer he makes from urine works like a top dressing chemical fertilizer such as urea.
Mr. Phiri says that, by applying urine and leaf fertilizer, he harvested 50 bags of maize last year from four acres. In previous years, he harvested 15 bags. He adds: “I was not able to produce adequate food for my family because I was struggling to buy chemical fertilizer. Now I am able to feed my family. Using proceeds from the harvest where I apply leaf and urine fertilizer, in 2016, I constructed an iron sheet house and this year I intend to [install] electricity in my house.”