Farmers turn wild sunflowers into low cost fertilizer

A group of farmers in Gatanga have found a way to produce local fertilizer that is delivering a much cheaper and more effective alternative to synthetic fertliser and a new business opportunity at grassroots level.

The liquid fertiliser is made from a plant that grows wild in rural areas of Central Kenya and is often considered an invasive plant. The plant, a non-leguminous shrub from the sunflower family called Tithonia diversifolia, also called wild sunflower, or Mexican sunflower,  has proven to provide nitrogen and phosphorous, two essential nutrients for plant growth,  to depleted soils.

Scientists estimate that soils in sub-Saharan Africa are being depleted at annual rates of 22 kilograms per hectare for nitrogen and 2.5 kg/ha for phosphorus leaving the farmers with soils that cannot sustain any yields, which explain the heavy reliance on fertilisers.

Scientist who have tested the plant have found it has substantial amounts of nitrogen, the most limited nutrient in African soils, and also has the ability to stimulate phosphorus availability in soil.

Once the farmers harvest the leaves of the plant, they chop them in to pieces and soak them in large containers for 7 to 14 days. “This is to ensure we get a thick liquid and so that the water can draw as much nutrients from the leaves as possible,” said Mwangi Ireri, one of the farmers in Gatanga constituency who uses the liquid manure on his 2 acre piece of land.

After the soaking is over the contents are mixed thoroughly and filtered through a sieve to separate the leaves and the liquid. The resulting liquid is applied to crops. Due to its high concentration farmers dilute it with water to spread as much of it across the farm as possible. A 10 litre bucket of the green fertiliser can be diluted with 10 litres of water.

“With dry fertiliser, it is difficult to get all the nutrients to every seed, especially with phosphorus pellets that are spaced fairly far apart, simply because there isn’t as much phosphorous in a blend.

Liquid fertilisers however have a ribbon effect, where every seed gets the exact same blend all the time. Because liquid fertiliser blends instantly, adding micronutrients is ideal. Every drop of the blend has every nutrient in the same strength,” said Lameck Rutinu a scientist working with the farmers.

The use of the Mexican sunflower has even opened a business platform for the enterprising farmers, with the group in Gatanga producing the green manureto  sell to neighbouring villages. The group sells both the diluted and concentrated liquid manure.

“A 5 litre bucket of concentrated liquid goes for Sh250, with the diluted fetching Sh100. The reason we have sold the liquid for two planting seasons is because farmers have been coming for it over and over and it has worked for them,” said Kimemia, one of the sellers.

This take-off has come at a time when farmers are seeking alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, which have gone up in price by as much as 115 per cent over the last two years, despite government subsidies and extra imports to cover the shortfall in the market.

The new liquid manure is also being used in traditional barter trade, with farmers with surplus liquid manure exchanging it with vendors in markets for other produces.

One farmer, Dorothy Waing’a produces three buckets of the liquid manure every market day, which she exchanges for seeds from the seed vendors, who sell the manure to farmers in the neighbouring Kandara division at a higher fee. “One bucket is worth around Sh250 so I give them my liquid manure and they give me seeds worth Sh250 or any other produce that matches that price,” said Waing’a.

A shopkeeper in Gatanga shopping centre is also stocking the liquid manure in affordable sizes, which he gets from the farmers who trade it for food from the shop. He sells the manure for Sh100 per container at the shop.

“It’s a perfect, healthy agreement. And the beauty of it all is that I clear stock a lot, especially around this time when many farmers are planting. Interestingly though, the fertilizer like CAN and DAP that I stock here no longer sells as much as this liquid fertiliser. A 2 kg packet of conventional fertilizer which is around Sh160 is picked by very few farmers. That explains why I always restock the liquid manure,” said Nduati the shopkeeper.