Childhood curiosity births soil testing lab

soil testing labA childhood curiosity about the differences in yields between young Fredrick Muthuri parent’s farm and that of his neighbor has been the spark that has turned him into a renown botanist and chemist who uses modern technology to test soils and increase yields.

Over 90 percent of soils in Kenya are untested, a fact that could be contributing to the dismal yields that have frustrated thousands of farmers across the country. Experts say decades of adding pesticides and chemicals to the soils without replenishing is taking a toil on the soil nutrients.

Muthuri parents’ farm was no different. Growing up, he wondered why his neighbour’s farm which was large and owned by commercial farmers could produce so much compared to his mums yet the soil was the same and the tilling practices almost similar.

“I used to wonder why there was such a big disparity in yields between what they used to get and what we used to get, because our life was built around planting,” he said. It wasn’t until many harvests later that Muthuri and his family learned that a successful farmer always tests his soil to determine which fertilizers to use.

Now in his 40s, Muthuri is a botanist and chemist. He is laser-focused on using soil science to help farmers maximize their productivity. In 2004, he started a small soil testing lab, Quest Technologies, which performed basic soil analyses for large exporters. But Muthuri felt there was more he could offer, especially to small-scale farmers unable to afford the Sh3, 000 analyses, and who didn’t have the time or resources to travel back and forth to a traditional laboratory.

In 2012, Muthuri developed a simple, cheap, mobile soil testing concept. Soil kits were supplied to local agricultural and veterinary businesses, or agro-vets. Extension workers used these kits to provide on-farm soil testing for their network of local farmers for about Sh1,000.

The raw results of the 45-minute test are given to the farmer and entered into an online platform, which calculates a customized fertilizer recommendation within minutes. If the fertilizer is unavailable in the farmer’s area, Quest can deliver a custom blend to the local agro-vet. Smallholder farmers will be able to boost their yields by 25 percent to 100 percent, and potentially increase their income by about $500 per year.

Muthuri has received support from the USAID Kenya sponsored programme Feed the Future Innovation Engine to push his project ahead.