Mobile phones spare Western Kenya soils

Every planting season, Mercy Nelima rushes to her local agrovet to get the best fertilizer. But at every harvest her acre of land produces lower yields than the previous harvest. This even after investing a fortune in fertilizer which she believes  holds the key to higher yields. She has never understood the problem even after having applied the right amount and the right time.

What Mercy and hundreds of other farmers in Mumias area of Western Kenya dont know is that the tired soils of the region dont require fertilizer but lime which corrects her  soil acidity and improve overall soil fertility and nutrient uptake. By  continually applying fertilizer without lime, she was actually making  her soil worse.

In Western Kenya, around 57,670 hectares of soil are acidic. The use of nitrogenous fertilizers like DAP and high rainfalls that penetrate deep into the ground have exacerbated the problems of soil acidity.

This information is however slowly being passed across farmers in the region, and saving them the agony of walking long distances to get their soils sampled. With a mobile phone, and Sh1500, a farmer is capable of knowing their farm's condition in five days through an SMS.

The project being championed by Crop Nutrition Lab Services, allow farmers to take the samples to the nearest dealer offering the service and then waiting for a couple of days, five at most, for the results. “A sample takes five days at the lab,”said Josephine Gakobo from Crop Nutrition who have come up with the service.

A soil scan goes for Sh2,500 although the company usually discount this upto ShSh1500 to encourage more farmers to take up the scan. “This is very little compared to the savings you can make when you test your soils,”she said.

After a series of tests have been done on the soil, the farmer receives an SMS with recommendations on what to apply to boost her soil. The scan would involve determination of soil PH, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, organic matter percentage and nitrogen relief percentage.

Recommendations would include identification of soil fertility problems such as deficiencies and toxicities, lime requirements, soil acidity, nitrogen, fertilizer requirements and manure application rates.

Payment for the service is made through the agro dealer. With this information, the farmer is then able to buy the right inputs according to the recommendations, including fertilizer that would ensure a good crop and harvest.

“It has worked wonders, before I could travel long distances of upto 10 kilometres to get to the nearest government soil laboratory and they could charge me Sh3,000. I feel relieved with this new idea because it has allowed me to keep track of my soil with the press of a button,”Jeremiah Wanyonyi who has benefitted from the service said.

The service mirrors another successful soil testing technology which has been assisted farmers in Western Kenya correct the soil infertility in the region. The new test, which uses the infrared technology measures the level of degradation in soils while also predicting potential shifting points in the soil, allowing restoration before the soil structure is entirely degraded. The test costs Sh100 per soil sample.

The same infrared technology has been extensively used by the pharmaceutical industry to ensure quality control in medicines. In soils it highlights the loss of finer particles of silt, clay and organic matter that are washed away as the physical structure of the soil starts to breakdown.