Soil health is crucial to farming. Without healthy soil, crops can’t grow enough to generate good yields. In Bungu, a natural rainforest with streams regularly coursing through lush mountain valleys, farmers are fortunate enough to have access to fertile land – but this natural bounty has its limits. Virtually all the arable land in Bungu has been turned into farmland, and constant farming has taken its toll on the health of the soil.
Increasingly in recent years, the Bungu Project Partners have struggled with exhausted soil, and for smallholder farmers like our Partners the problem often becomes choosing the lesser of two evils: If you plant on exhausted soil, maybe you harvest a small amount and make a little money or maybe you harvest next to nothing and lose money; but if you don’t plant at all, you won’t lose any money on the cost of seed and other inputs, but you definitely won’t make any money either. Through August of this year, many Partners opted for the latter option – not planting and not risking losing money. But the lost planting opportunity meant that revenue for most Partners slowed significantly.
Faced with the compounded problem of exhausted soil and low revenue, in September we decided to invest in the project with an injection of high-quality organic fertilizer made from manure. Ground Team and the Project Coordinators decided that project funds would cover 85% of the cost of the fertilizer, and each partner subsequently put in his or her order for fertilizer to a third-party provider, submitted the costs to Ground Team, and was reimbursed for 85% of the total cost. The investment expense drawn from project funds totaled TZS 1,295,400 ($616.86) or just over TZS 100,000 for each of the Bungu Project’s 12 Partners on average. To put this figure in perspective, recall that one of the Bungu Project’s yearlong goals is for four of the 12 Partners to earn TZS 75,000 in revenue each month. Considering the money spent on this fertilizer is likely to be greater than most Partners’ monthly revenue, this investment represents a significant cash injection made possible by the Project’s donors.
After the fertilizer was delivered in October, it spent most of the next two months sitting in piles on each Partner’s shamba (farm plot), usually protected from the elements by a layer of cut tree branches and leaves. The occasional weed would sprout up directly out of the heap, nourished by the nutrient-rich manure, which our Partners would pluck out. Meanwhile, the group was getting ready to plant in other ways. Flood barriers and water tanks, part of 2Seeds’s Network-wide Water Management Initiative, were still under construction at a number of shambas. And we were still developing our crop rotation plan, and waiting for sections of each shamba to become available for planting.
Finally, after several patient months, the fertilizer was ready to be used. About a week before planting, each Partner prepared beds for the seeds, evening out the soil and clearing weeds, and mixed some fertilizer with the soil in each bed to allow the nutrients to incorporate into the soil. When each Partner planted in early December, he or she carefully placed the seeds in the prepared beds and covered them with more soil and more fertilizer. And they were off.
It’s been exciting to see our Partners plant this month, the first time since I’ve been in Bungu. And it’s especially exciting that this time they’re planting with high-quality fertilizer that promises to replenish the soil and produce good yields. But it’s also important to remember that soil health cannot be taken for granted. After March 2016, there will no longer be any Project Coordinators in Bungu to provide large investments like organic fertilizer. Moving forward, it will be important for the Partners to hold each other accountable for their crop rotation plans, which will help prevent soil exhaustion, and for their savings deposits, which they’ll be able to dip into for big investments, like high-quality fertilizer. And instead of relying on Bungu’s natural bounty, our Partners will be able to produce their own hard-earned bounty on the way to greater income security.