Maggots are key to fertilizer in times of crisis for Ugandan farmers

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KAYUNGA, Uganda — Moses Wamugango peered into the plastic tubs where maggots writhed in the rotting dirt, the enviable project of a neighbor who spoke of the fertilizer problem he had managed to solve.

Maggots are the larvae of the black soldier fly, an insect whose digestive system efficiently converts food waste into organic fertilizer. Farmers would normally despise them if they weren’t so valuable.

“I want the maggots too,” Wamugango said. Agriculture officials who give out the tubs for free took his name two weeks ago and said they would give him four to start with. “I’m still waiting. The last time they came, they didn’t come to my house. That’s the problem I have right now.”

Uganda is a regional food basket, but rising commodity prices blamed on Russia’s war in Ukraine are hurting farmers. Fertilizer prices have doubled or tripled, with some popular products hard to find in the market, according to the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership, a non-profit organization that supports agriculture across the continent.

Most of the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa comes from smallholder farmers who deploy family labor. Agricultural experts want governments and outside benefactors to support them more, including through subsidies.

Some who have warned for years against over-reliance on synthetic fertilizers consider larval rearing an exemplary effort toward sustainable organic agriculture. They hope the program can be implemented one farmer at a time. Larval rearing programs exist in other countries, including Nigeria and neighboring Kenya, where parts of the country are suffering from drought.

In this Ugandan agricultural district not far from the capital, Kampala, hundreds of smallholder farmers have adopted the breeding of this ephemeral but fertile insect.

The number of farmers signing up has grown as the price of synthetic fertilizers has risen, presenting many with the challenge of how to care for demanding crops such as coffee. From just two participants in January 2021, the number now stands at more than 1,300 larval rearers.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial. The groups that supply farmers with young larvae and tanks, waste management company Marula Proteen and agricultural exporter Enimiro, are assured of a steady supply of larvae for their continued breeding efforts. Farmers are guaranteed a tripled cash benefit in the 14 days they raise larvae on food waste, with the rest of the larvae poo and compost mixture left over to feed their gardens.

“Before, I was afraid of maggots,” said farmer Joseph Wagudoma, owner of eight tanks received in February. “When I heard someone raising maggots, I was like, ‘How can someone raise maggots?'”

His fear dissipated when he saw a first recruit freely dipping his hands into a vat.

Wagudoma now earns around $10 per bi-monthly harvest, enough to buy groceries and even put money aside. His chickens no longer stray too far, lingering under the suspended vats to catch the larvae that creep in. He regularly pours the watery compost around the coffee and vanilla plants, which he says are looking healthier and healthier.

“The sun burned people’s plants and they died. But for me, the fertilizer I have keeps my soil fresh and nice,” the father-of-six said. “My coffee plants are now giving more beautiful flowers than before. What is good I found in maggots. I get money and I also get fertilizer.

In Kayunga district, home to an expanding larvae-rearing program in central Uganda, one of the first challenges was overcoming farmers’ skepticism about the viability of the maggots. Today, agricultural extension workers face overwhelming interest from farmers, said Enimiro’s Muhammad Magezi.

“Now many of them even come to our center, come to the gates, to ask for the larvae,” he said. The goal of enrolling 2,000 farmers in Kayunga is within reach and a similar project in western Uganda is underway.

The grub rearing program is “a real solution” to hunger, heavy reliance on imported fertilizers and climate change, said Ruchi Tripathi of London-based VSO Group, which supports farming communities around the world.

“We can no longer continue to produce by destroying our soils,” she said. “How much can you exploit the soils and how long do you think it will continue?”

The growing popularity of the larval rearing program means there is hope for a move away from synthetic fertilizers in some African countries, she said.

African cities would do well to have factories like the one in Kampala which consumes only a fraction of tons of waste daily to power its larval breeding center, said Tommie Hooft van Huijsduinen of the Marula Proteen group which supports small-scale producers in Kayunga.

With the price of synthetic fertilizers now too high for some farmers, he said, his factory has more orders than it can supply. At $11 per 50-kilogram (110-pound) bag, his product is four times cheaper than synthetic fertilizers on the market – and in demand among commercial coffee growers who rate his performance.

“What we saw was that before (the war in Ukraine), we were looking for customers and convincing them to come and try it,” he said. Now that has changed: “I wish I had more fertilizer.”

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