Africa calls you back
West Africa gets deep into your marrow, haunts you,
calls you back.
After two years there in Peace Corps working with farmers
in Mali, I was yearning to return to the region. In
2003, that call drew me to Senegal where I spent a semester
as an intern at The Rodale Institute to compliment my
graduate research in sustainable agriculture. I wanted
to see how TRI was able to transfer its expertise to
farmers, helping to improve their livelihoods.
The Senegalese farmers I met were eager to share their
stories, their food, and their laughter. Their resilience
and creativity farming on the edge of the Sahara can
serve as inspiration to us all. – Nathan C.
It might seem crass to suggest that
the world’s greatest civilizations have been built on foundations
of their own waste. Perhaps. But civilizations as we define them
grew as a function of agricultural productivity. And since humans
first began scraping the ground and planting seeds some 15 millennia
ago, they have relied on decomposed organic matter—manure,
garbage, crop residues—to replenish the soil’s fertility.
Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist working on colonial plantations
in India in the 1920s, grew frustrated with the growing incidence
of plant disease and loss of humus in Western monocultures. He noted,
“The Chinese have maintained soil fertility on small holdings
for forty centuries.” At the same time he recognized the inefficiency
of the traditional method of stacking manure in piles. In his 1943
memoir An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert, in his zealous,
surly prose declared, “The fungi and bacteria of the manure
heap are working under impossible conditions. They live a life of
constant frustration which can only be avoided by giving them a
English writer spreads compost gospel
experimenting with different methods of composting, he brought the
injustices of the dunghill to the world’s attention in a 1931
publication detailing the so-called “Indore method,”
named for the state in India where he and his colleagues conducted
their research. The Indore method is what we all know as composting—piles
or pits of manure or organic waste layered with dry matter to facilitate
aeration, watered regularly, and turned every month or so. Following
his clarion call, the Indore method spread to British tea and coffee
plantations throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. It is the
first thing all Peace Corps ag volunteers learn to do. And it’s
central to the Rodale Institute’s (RI) extension work to promote
regenerative agriculture in Senegal.
While composting is only a tiny part of Rodale’s program
to increase organic matter content in the sandy jóór
soils of the Peanut Basin, it is an integral one. Since the Senegal
office opened in 1987, tens of thousands of farmers and extension
workers have been trained in regenerative agriculture techniques,
a large portion of whom received instruction in Sir Albert’s
trusted method of pit composting. Trainings are conducted with the
expectation that the participants themselves will go on to perpetuate
the technology on their own as its benefits become apparent. For
example, following RI’s work with the Projet de Gestion des
Eaux de Casamance (PROGES), farmers set up 800 composting pits based
on the ten constructed for training demonstrations. Rodale has also
published pamphlets and booklets in both French and Wolof detailing
Results from Rodale’s on-farm experimentation with compost
have been impressive. The 1990 annual report provides the results
of on-farm composting trials at N’Gombel and Mboufta. Millet
grain yields (1270 kg/ha) in plots fertilized with compost were
four and a half times greater than unfertilized controls (230 kg/ha).
In peanuts, the increases were not so pronounced, but still favorable.
Plots fertilized with compost yielded 230 kg/ha more peanuts than
plots fertilized with manure, and one metric ton per hectare more
stover, or ngooñ, a valuable fodder for livestock.
At Mboufta, in the Departement de Tivaouane, north of Thiès,
an application of two tons of compost every two years has yielded
3.5 times the millet than control plots, and 125 percent of the
local farmers practice of varying rates of manure application. Promising
results pointing to compost’s superiority mark all of Rodale’s
work in Senegal throughout the last fifteen years or so, and were
Sir Albert still around, he’d certainly revel proudly in his
Why the better results from compost over manure? Is there actually
a difference between compost and manure that’s been sitting
in a pile? It’s a fine line that farmers and extension workers
run circles around. Basically, it depends on whether or not the
pile has heated up.
Without getting too technical, life in a dunghill proceeds as such.
Microbial populations in the waste consume the readily available carbon.
As they metabolize it, CO2 is released, heating the pile up. This
heralds a whole new slew of thermophilic, or heat-loving bacteria
that consume the rest of the degradable carbon. As activity slows
down, the pile temperature drops, allowing for colonization by fungi
that consume much of the remaining recalcitrant forms of carbon—lignins
and cellulose. The resulting crumbly, earthy humus is considerably
more stable than manure, meaning its nutrients are less likely to
be lost to leaching or volatilization into the atmosphere.
||Results from Rodale’s on-farm experimentation
with compost have been impressive. Millet grain yields in plots
fertilized with compost were four and a half times greater than
As compost matures, its nitrogen is mineralized, meaning it moves
from its organic form to ammonium and then nitrate, the form that
can be taken up by plants. If a pile of wet manure just sits there
unturned, it will likely become anaerobic and smelly as precious
nitrogen is lost as ammonia gas. Sir Albert’s mission was
to optimize the conditions for decomposition. This could be seen
as a gesture of magnanimity to keep the microbial workers happy
and productive, in a manner or speaking.
Great intentions, but…
RI has been wracked with the same
frustration in the past as so many other NGOs and development workers.
Oftentimes, once a project has finished, participants will abandon
their composting pits and go back to traditional methods of manure
application. In his 1982 classic Two Ears of Corn, the
how-to Bible of participatory development, Roland Bunch writes,
“The rusting hulks of well-intentioned but long-forgotten
give-aways are scattered all over the Third World.” I’ve
seen quite a few empty compost pits during my first month in Senegal.
When I ask farmers why they stopped composting, they generally tell
me that it takes too much water, that they don’t have enough
manure to fill the pits, or that turning the compost is too labor-intensive.
The Rodale staff is well-aware of the problem of “dis-adoption”.
Earlier this year, they conducted a follow-up impact survey of a
project carried out between 1996 and 1999 in the Tambacounda region,
the southern reaches of the Peanut Basin. A partnership between
RI and the Association Communautaire pour le Développement
de Koumpentoum (ACDK), the three-year, $161,000 project funded by
USAID promoted regenerative techniques and local economic capacity-building
in the rainfed agriculture zone (“zone pluviale”).
Four years later, they found that while 75 percent of the Arrondissement
de Koumpentoum practiced at least one of the techniques promoted
by RI, the adoption rate of compost was much lower. Farmers complained
of the same things that they’ve been telling me. Digging the
pits was too labor-intensive. Inadequate supplies of manure. The
high cost and limited availability of cement. Adapting to these
constraints, farmers in Darou Salam Thièkène switched
over to pile composting. Compost piles, while slower to decompose,
require little labor and are often watered only by the rain.
More recently, during the first year of the Vanderbilt project,
six sacks of cement were given to each of the five villages for
the construction of two 2m3 pits. In 2001, the first year of the
project, four composting sessions were held, with 60 attendees (49
of them women). Over the course of the gardening season, the villages
produced 8,800 metric tons of compost in the pits. However, outside
of the communal plots, only 13 percent of the participants used
compost as a soil amendment, while 52 percent used manure.
Adapting to farmer constraints
Learning from their previous experiences,
Rodale emphasized pile composting during the 2002 sessions in an effort
to increase compost adoption. The results have been as sweet as the
smell of the compost itself. In Keur Banda and neighboring Diouffène,
compost production among group members is universal. All of it is
produced in piles. As I was led from compound to compound, I saw enormous
piles of decomposing manure, stalks, household garbage, alongside
smaller piles of humic, “ripe” compost, kompos bu
One Keur Banda farmer, Amy Diop, complained to me that she has
so much compost that she can’t get it out to her field without
a cart. In Thiawène I asked, “Who makes compost in
this group?” “Ñun ñëpp!
All of us!” they replied heartily.
Next door in Ndiamsil, a farmer stood next to the gaping, empty
pit that had been the site of so much activity a decade ago. “No,
we stopped making compost,” he shook his head slowly with
resignation. Yet not 10 feet away was a huge pile of composted manure
and millet residue! Indeed, it is often simply a question of blurred
definitions. In most rural compounds, manure, household garbage,
cooking ashes, and broken or decomposed millet stalks from fences
are stacked in a pile, a sentaare. Some people just leave
this throughout the duration of the rainy season to decompose on
its own, while others turn it every month or so. When I asked if
it smelled or was hot when they disturbed the pile, most said that
it had cooled off and turned back into suuf—soil—by
the time they scattered it on their fields. It might not be produced
under the optimal conditions, but it’s compost nonetheless.
The key to successful development is to build on what people already
know. The movement from compost pits to piles is a classic example
of local adaptation of a technology to better meet labor and material
constraints. Pile composting is also more closely akin to a traditional
practice. In Thiawène, the women recognized the superiority
of their pile compost over the family sentaare compost—millet
fertilized with the former was a darker shade of green. But they
each only had produced two to three cartloads of it, as opposed
to 10 to 12 cartloads from the sentaare. With a just a
little more attention—by turning it more often—the sentaare
could produce compost as rich as that produced in the piles.
Championing manurial rights
“Can anything be done at this
late hour by way of reform? Can Mother Nature secure even a partial
restitution of her manurial rights?” Sir Albert’s pleas,
while a wee melodramatic, are pertinent to the case of Senegal’s
Peanut Basin nevertheless. As fallows get shorter and disappear
altogether, the sandy soils are in dire need of organic matter if
they are to continue to be productive.
When I asked farmers in Thiawène if the soil had become
less fertile in the last five years, they surprised me with their
response. “Déédéét, léégi
suuf si moo gënë naat. No, now the soil is more fertile.”
They explained that with the increased application of organic matter
over the last few years as prescribed by Rodale’s workers
in the field, less of the precious topsoil is lost to the wind and
rain, and yields are getting better.
Sir Albert was right: “If the easiest road is first taken,
a great deal can be accomplished in a few years.” So turn
those dunghills and keep those carts rolling!
Nathan McClintock made a lot of compost as a Peace Corps ag
volunteer in Mali. He holds an M.S. in sustainable agriculture from
North Carolina State University. He just returned from assisting
a farmers’ group Nepal in its transition to organic. He will
be starting a PhD in agroecological geography at Berkeley this fall.