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Agricultural experts are urging Malawian subsistence farmers to use organic compost — instead of manufactured fertilisers — to boost soil fertility and increase crop productivity.

Accelerating soil degradation is increasingly being linked to declines in yields throughout the global south (see Degraded soils a threat to poorest regions). But use of compost can help soils to retain both water and nutrients.

The nationwide campaign comes as prices of manufactured fertilisers are skyrocketing, making them too expensive for most Malawian subsistence farmers. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 90 per cent of farmers in Malawi live in remote areas of the country and survive on less than US$1 per day.

But compost is affordable and easy to make from a combination of dry leaves, grass, maize stalks and other biodegradable substances. The materials are mixed with soil and water, then left to decompose for a period of time.

"It is high time that farmers change their minds and start applying readily available compost in their fields," says Samuel Saka, agricultural development officer for Nkhunga extension planning area in Nkhota-Kota district in central Malawi. "Based on the successful demonstration plots we had, many farmers have started implementing this method and the results speak for themselves — high maize yields."

Griffins Chinkhutha, who uses organic compost on his 20-hectare garden, has become a shining example countrywide. His land, popularly known as the 'Freedom Gardens' is a hive of activity. University students, and local and international farmers come to tap his knowledge and expertise. With compost use, he has turned the garden into a highly productive one, the whole year round.

Moses Munthali, a soil science expert at Chitedze Agricultural Research Station in Lilongwe, says, "the material is good and it will help farmers a great deal".

Collin Chiumya, a subsistence farmer, says, "Fertilisers are currently very expensive [for] ordinary Malawian farmers. I am therefore urging my fellow farmers to make the most use of organic compost manure in order to improve our agro-based economy through high crop production."

Use of compost can also increase soil's carbon content and can contribute to climate change mitigation, according an article in this week's edition of Science. Its recommendation in Malawi comes at a time when Africa as a whole is investing in food security and sustainability.

During the second extraordinary session of the African Union held in Sirte, Libya, recently, African leaders recognised the urgent need to respond to the continent's critical problems of hunger, poverty and disease by employing innovative complementary and comprehensive approaches.

In the resulting Sirte Declaration, delegates stressed the "need to effectively utilise the results of scientific research for agricultural planning to tackle the problems of desertification, soil and water conservation and environment protection for sustainable agricultural and animal resource development".

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