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In Africa, producing food from waste

Farmers in southern Africa use composted food scraps, human waste, and livestock manure for many purposes, from enriching soil to feeding fish.

By Kim KidoNourishing the Planet / November 23, 2011

A worker prunes tomato plants in the Dube AgriZone greenhouse situated at King Shaka International Airport north of Durban, South Africa. Currently 25 acres of produce is farmed under glass in a facility that is climate controlled and recycles water. Elsewhere in Africa, composting and 'integrated management' also make the most of available resources.

Rogan Ward/Reuters

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In sub-Saharan Africa where nearly a third of the population is hungry, over a quarter of food produced is lost to spoilage. And the hundreds of millions of livestock on the continent are responsible for degrading almost half of crop land on the continent, which makes up over one-third of overgrazed lands worldwide.

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But the uneaten food, manure, and other forms of waste are being used by farmers to produce fertilizer, fuel, and food.

South Africa has been diverting organic matter from its landfills since 1969. About 2 percent of waste generated in Cape Town, and 15 percent in Johannesburg, is diverted through composting.

In Johannesburg, compost sales were projected to completely offset production costs by 2006. Two other municipalities operate smaller-scale composting facilities in the country. A project funded by the World Bank in Uganda has nine municipalities establishing composting plants.

Composting food waste relieves pressure on landfills while producing an inexpensive, nutrient-rich soil amendment that farmers use to improve soil fertility. Compost adds organic matter to the soil, increasing the water-holding capacity of its structure, facilitating root penetration and making nutrients available to crops over time.

Subsistence farmers have traditionally relied on composting and livestock manure to improve soils. The Ibo tribe of Nigeria, for example, used branches from trees for mulching, applied goat dung to individual plants, and composted human waste as early as  the 1970s. In Zimbabwe, farmers traditionally graze cattle during the day and contain them in pens at night so that they can collect the manure and spread it over farmland.

A number of projects have been teaching farmers across the continent how to compost and improve the quality of compost produced. A participatory radio show in the Zégoua region of Mali resulted in a 64 percent increase in household adoption of composting. In Kenya, a demonstration project turned waste from households, vegetable markets, and an avocado processing plant into compost that farmers could use to increase crop yields or sell. And farmers in Pelungu, Ghana, are building goat shelters with sloped floors that transport dung into a central location using gravity. The manure is then composted and used on farms.

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