Ethiopia’s agricultural sector produced a surplus in 2015. However, due to the severe drought of 2016/17, famine has broken out again.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries – one in two people suffer from malnutrition. A special kind of fertilizer is now set to change this: by mixing human waste with biochar, Jülich researchers want to create a compost that will improve yields on fields, thus increasing the amount of food available. At the same time, the fertilizer could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The use of cow manure to fertilize carrot, potato, or lettuce fields is considered perfectly normal. But using human waste as a fertilizer? The thought is likely to cause some discomfort. And yet, some regions could profit from increased crop yields while protecting the environment at the same time. Ethiopia is one such example. The country situated in north-eastern Africa frequently suffers from famines. The small farmers there are often so poor that they cannot afford any fertilizer that would increase their crop yields.
Image above: Ethiopia’s agricultural sector produced a surplus in 2015. However, due to the severe drought of 2016/17, famine has broken out again.
It may seem bizarre to us, but the idea is not a new one: farmers were using this kind of fertilizer as early as 5,000 years ago. Jülich researchers from the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-3) together with partners from the ClimEtSan project – which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) – are investigating how it could help people in Ethiopia today. “On an experimental farm on the campus of Hawassa University, we are analysing what effects this kind of fertilization has on the food situation of the population as well as greenhouse gas emissions,” explains project leader Dr. Katharina Prost. “According to literature, both values should improve significantly – after all, nutrient-rich human faeces are theoretically a more effective fertilizer than animal dung. And once the faeces have been composted, they release smaller amounts of greenhouse gases.” The experimental farm is currently under construction. It comprises composting facilities, field experiments, and laboratories. Development workers, small farmers, and other interested parties will in future be able to learn more about the special fertilizer there.
If everything goes as planned, the researchers will commence field tests together with small farmers. And the future fertilizer will come from the loo – more accurately: from a bucket toilet which is so named for the fact that urine and faeces end up in a bucket. The bucket toilet is filled with a layer of sawdust or biochar that absorbs smells and liquids. Biochar is also a waste product, which is produced in clay ovens used for cooking. They only cost € 10 and are set to replace the more traditional open fireplaces. In the long term, this is a profitable investment for the farmers, since an open fireplace requires three times as much wood as an oven – and wood is a scarce commodity and therefore expensive in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the oven emits fewer greenhouse gases and produces less smoke than an open fireplace. But the waste product biochar not only binds smells: it is currently being hyped as a mega-soil conditioner. As part of the ClimEtSan project it will be composted together with human waste in order to further increase the efficiency of the fertilizer and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Janine van Ackeren
Forschungszentrum Jülich (coordination)
Wondo Genet College of Forestry and Natural Resources (Hawassa University), Ethiopia
Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin
Pro Lehm – company specializing in clay construction
Ecopia – Ecological products and services of Ethiopia