Growing Hope in Malawi

16th February 2021

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University have partnered with NGO Malawi Fruits, and the Malawi Government’s Agricultural Research Team, to test a novel new organic fertiliser produced from cattle waste. Could these problematic waste products be recycled into organic fertiliser with the potential to regenerate Malawi’s rapidly degrading soil?

Farmers in much of sub-Saharan Africa are struggling against the effects of climate change and soil degradation is a major threat to agricultural development. This is particularly felt in Malawi, one of the world’s most impoverished countries.  Malawi’s economy is mainly agricultural, and difficult growing conditions have led to widespread use of synthetic fertilisers, which are subsidised by the Government in an attempt improve the country’s food security. However, these chemicals cause further soil degradation and pollute water resources.

Pollution from abattoirs is also a growing concern in Malawi, as demand for meat is on the rise. Leaching of effluent from over-utilised and under-modernised abattoirs can also pollute rivers, which are often used for drinking water or for bathing.

Effluent discharge from an abattoir.

To tackle these problems, Anglia Ruskin University have teamed up with Malawi Fruits – a Scottish-based charity working to support rural farmers and establish sustainable community businesses in the north of Malawi – and with researchers at the Malawi Government’s research station. With funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, this project team are conducting crop trials in Malawi, to test organic fertiliser produced from recycled cattle dung and left-over animal waste from local abattoirs. This potentially hazardous waste was safely removed from farms and abattoirs and taken to a vermicomposting facility, where it has been broken down by earth worms. This process produces a safe, nutrient rich fertilising compost ready to apply to agricultural soils.

The end product: nutrient rich fertilising compost.

This low-cost fertiliser has previously shown promise in India in enhancing crop yields without degrading soils and could offer Malawi a revolutionary step towards more sustainable farming practices. Replacing the organic matter in the soil has the potential to rebuild the microbiome that soils need to sustainably grow crops without the use of synthetic fertilisers, and using recycled by-products adds the benefit of cleaning up the potentially hazardous waste at the source.

Polytunnel supplied by Malawi Fruits for project tomato plants trials.

Trials of maize and tomato crops are currently underway in Malawi and initial results are expected in June this year. This collaborative research team hope to expand the research over multiple growing seasons, to test the level of soil regeneration that can be achieved by switching from synthetic fertilisers to this sustainable organic alternative. These results will allow the transnational team to work with farmers and provide them with an affordable and ecological alternative to synthetic fertilisers, offering them long-term sustainability in the face of climate change. The team are also hopeful that uptake of this organic fertiliser in future governmental subsidy schemes could kick-start the regeneration of Malawi’s soils right across the country.

Zoe Cawthorn

Research Associate, Anglia Ruskin University - GCRF Project “Growing Hope”.
Zoe is a researcher in agroecology, with a particular interest in rural agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Zoe is also the founder and editor of The Global Good - a blogsite of good news stories, aimed at sharing the wonderful work of NGOs and other organisations around the world.