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Ugandan farmers court urine to boost soil fertility

Ugandan farmers buffeted by low yields have turned to human urine to fertilize soils with scientists approving urine as rich in nutrients necessary for plant growth.

Scientists have found that urine is a first-rate source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, elements that are all vital for plant health and disease resistance. They say using urine as fertiliser will help to rehabilitate the country’s eroded and damaged soils.

Using human urine is also much cheaper than chemical fertiliser. This is a bonus for the country’s small-scale farmers who often lack the financial means to purchase farming inputs. In Uganda, a 50 kilogramme bag of fertiliser costs Sh6,000 while urine costs nothing.

The idea of using urine as liquid fertiliser was initially promoted by Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan), an international manufacturer of waterless, eco-friendly toilets, through the Ugandan Red Cross. EcoSan toilets separate urine and faeces into separate compartments so that they can be re-used as liquid fertiliser and manure.

But since the Red Cross can only sponsor a limited number of such toilets, which cost between Sh27,000 to Sh125,000, most Ugandans – who earn an average of about Sh25,000 year, according to the International Monetary Fund – cannot afford to buy their own.

Instead, farmers in more than 30 districts in Uganda have come up with an alternative: they simply get all of their family members to wee into buckets or jerry cans to collect urine.

Rose Nabirye, a farmer from Mayuge in eastern Uganda, says she was sceptical at first and thought urine fertiliser is unhygienic, but when she tested it, she was extremely happy with the results.

“Now I have containers behind my pit latrine to collect urine every morning and evening. I then store it in closed containers for about a week and pour it onto manure which I apply in the garden,” she explains.

Nabirye says the urine-soaked manure, in addition to liquid fertiliser, has helped her to increase her maize and vegetable yields.

Steven Nabuyaka, a vegetable farmer in eastern Bududa district, recounts how he used to spend about Sh1700 each farming season to buy a few kilos of fertiliser for his onion garden until he learnt that he could use urine instead.

He says once aid organisation like the Red Cross and Catholic charity CARITAS started to educate smallholders about human urine fertiliser, news travelled rapidly across the country’s farming communities via word-of-mouth.

“I tried it, and it works,” Nabuyaka says with delight. “Last season, I didn’t buy any fertiliser from the market, and the yield was okay. I have tried it on the bananas, and the results are promising.”

He also found that urine helps to fight pests, especially in banana plants.

As for Nabuyaka, the urine fertiliser is for most farmers the first viable opportunity to nourish their land. Uganda has one of the lowest levels of fertiliser use in Africa.

According to a 2006 study by the national Department of Agriculture, Uganda uses only 0.37 kilogrammes of fertiliser nutrients per hectare, compared to six kilogrammes per hectare in Tanzania, 16 kilogrammes per hectare in Malawi, 31.6 kilogrammes per hectare in Kenya and 51 kilogrammes per hectare in South Africa.

As reasons for this, the study identified high fertiliser prices, low levels of fertiliser distribution in rural areas and farmers’ perception that Uganda’s soils do not need to be replenished.

Yet the opposite is true: soil nutrient depletion and erosion have been major problems in Uganda for decades and have led to widespread farmland degradation and food insecurity. The soil is being depleted of nutrients at an alarming rate, as farmers struggle to feed the rapidly expanding population.

Professor Matete Bekunda, soil scientist at the Faculty of Agriculture at Makerere University in Kampala, confirms that agricultural productivity in Uganda has remained largely stagnant due to low soil nutrition content.

He says a major problem is that farmers no longer land fallow for a season to give it a chance to regain some of its fertility. “The population pressure now forces them to grow crop after crop, season after season. This mines the soil of nutrients without replenishing it. So the food produced by the infertile soil will be little,” he explains.

According to a 2009 United Nations Habitat report, Uganda has a population growth rate of 3.3 percent, compared to the global average of 1.1 percent. About 80 percent of the population relies on resources like land and lakes for their livelihood.

Agricultural experts like Bekunda hope that using urine fertiliser might be a way of slowly improving one element of the situation, the degradation of the land.

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