Soil nutrition in Africa: What some Greening Australians do on holiday

After a massive team effort implementing over 500ha of direct seeding and hand planting seedlings in the Living Mortlock and other central Wheatbelt projects, most people would be looking for a nice place for a quiet lie down. But no, not a bit of it for David Collins. He’s on a trip to Uganda and Ethiopia following up on research he collaborated on with staff from Curtin University. Anne Smith tells the story.

Where this story began

In 2010 Dave co-supervised (with Dr Deb Pritchard) PhD* student Mr Innocent Muhereza to carry out research into the socio-economic and agricultural potential of cattle manure application for crop production in Uganda. For small subsistence family-owned farms throughout much of Africa the science of soil nutrition is critical. It often means the difference between feeding your family and starvation. But the science needs to be locally available and, above all, inexpensive. No high-cost, high-tech plant fertiliser for these family enterprises.

In 2012 Dave and Dr Pritchard accompanied (now) Dr Muhereza to bring his findings home to Ethiopia where they could do most good. They ran a series of local workshops to share the knowledge, improving small farm production and sustainability. As they presented to a lecture room full of students at Addis Ababa University, Dave was amazed to see a crowd of young people with notebooks gathered outside, listening to every word through the open windows. These were those who couldn’t gain a university entry – the fees are a barrier to many – but who were keen to learn and spend any spare time listening in to lectures.

And why a second trip?

When a second trip to both Uganda and Ethiopia was made possibe through funding from a Crawford Fund grant written by Dr Pritchard, Dave once again jumped at the chance to be involved.

The Ugandan part of the trip is currently bringing this important research – focussed on sources of nitrogen in the soils – to the numerous small subsistence farms which support many Ugandan rural families. Dave and Innocence are running workshops with 120 participating small landholders aiming to improve the sustainability and viability of these vital family enterprises.

The workshops are aimed at training future local trainers and setting up an app to ensure the new knowledge has wide transference across the rural community. Meanwhile back home in Perth, Dave’s son Jesse is putting together a short video from footage and photos sent back by the travellers.

The findings

When new knowledge on plant nutrition has the potential to enable you to both feed your family and have a surplus to sell at market, and when normal soil testing is too expensive, it’s time to get back to basics.

And the basics can be summed up by 3 clear messages:

  1. PLANTS CAN’T LIE: if they are deficient in a particular nutrient they will always show it.
  2. PLANTS DON’T CARE: plants take the nutrients they need from any source, whether it’s organic or inorganic.
  3. LET THE PLANTS TELL YOU: By setting up a small plot trial with different fertiliser treatments, then waiting, We are able to let the plants tell the story of what they need.

The Ethiopian part of the trip starts next week with a meeting with the Agriculture Dean of a regional University.

“If all our ducks line up we are hoping to give a presentation on managed grazing systems based on fodder shrubs and land rehabilitation,” Dave told me. This presentation will draw heavily on Dave’s Greening Australia work over the past five years in developing our native-based mixed species fodder system.

So the question remains; Is Dave having fun and winding down after his big work season?

Yes indeed; “Hi Anne, having a great holiday… a bit different to Northam! I have realised that people here get my sense of humour… and vice versa, I feel completely at home.”

I just hope he comes home again as we have an even bigger planting season coming up in 2016.

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* PhD: Curtin University, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Department of Environment and Agriculture