Sunday, October 4, 2015

A mobile soil testing facility now available in Kenya

By Isaiah Esipisu

KUSAKA, Zambia (PAMACC News) - Farmers anywhere in Kenya can now collect at least 50 soil samples from different farms, and order a mobile soil testing laboratory to come to their site, thanks to a Dutch company that now provides such services in the country.

“We need to stop treading soil like dirt,” Dr Bashir Jama, the director for Soil Health Program at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) writes in his blog. Soil, according to Dr Jama, is a living thing and it needs to be respected and cared for. “Otherwise it will die,” he says.

A mobile soil testing lab, run by SoilCares Limited from Netherlands is an automobile truck containing all machineries and equipments including different computer software required for processing and analysing soil samples to determine the nutrient levels, nutrient deficiencies, acidity and the general health status of the soil.

According to David Mbakaya, a soil scientist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), it is extremely important for one to know the health status of soil on his farm before applying any kind of farm input.

“Among many farmers particularly the smallholders, there is a perception that fertilizer automatically improves yields, and as a result, farmers end up applying any available fertilizers without considering the health status of their soils,” said Mbakaya. “That should never be the case. Soils are supposed to be tested, and appropriate types of fertilizers recommended.”

Mbakaya notes that long term and repeated use of nitrogen based fertilizers mostly in some maize growing zones of western Kenya has resulted in high soil acidity, which has considerably reduced farm yields.

As a result, KALRO in collaboration with other organisations have introduced the use of lime to reduce soil acidity, and in the recent seasons, it has resulted in dramatic improvement in maize yield among smallholder farmers.

“Just as a balanced diet is important for our health and wellbeing, we need a balanced, integrated approach for managing our soils,” notes Dr Jama.

Initially, for farmers to know the status of their soil health, they had to carry samples to agricultural research centres, and wait for days before receiving feedback.

But now, farmers can come together and order for a mobile soil testing truck so that their soils are tested from their sites, and thereby advised on what to plant, or what type of farm inputs to be introduced on different farms depending on the results in just three hours.

“When we receive an order from a group of farmers, we first send an agronomist on the ground to teach them how to collect the soil samples appropriately before moving the truck on the site,” said Austine Ochieng, a Soil Analyst at the SoilCares limited.

To collect a soil sample, says the soil analyst, the farmer can use a soil auger or a ‘panga’ to scoop the soil from at least 25 centimetres deep on his farm. If it is one acre for example, different small samples can be collected from say 25 different areas within the land and mixed together. All the samples should be just one kilogram in total.

The farmer then writes personal details on the soil sample bag (provided by the company) including the location, the crop they intend to plant, the field size and contact information.

The sample is then dried up, crushed into powder, and then taken in for digital analysis.

“We test for the soil acidity, the micro and macronutrients in the soil, after which we recommend the type of fertilizer to be applied, and for which type of crops,” said Austine while exhibiting the mobile soil testing lab at the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Lusaka, Zambia.

“Soil testing is important because as much as we advocate for use of fertilizers for smallholders, we advocate for appropriate use of the farm inputs, and not a blanket use of fertilizers,” Hon Given Lubinda, the minister of Agriculture and Livestock in Zambia told the Seeds of Gold.

So far, among all countries in East, Central and Southern region, it is only Zambia and Tanzania that have sufficient food stock and are able to export some to neighbouring countries. Hon Lubinda says the country’s success is based on appropriate use of farm inputs and use of certified seeds.

“We insist for at least 50 samples for testing because we have to cover the costs of logistics involved in transporting the mobile soil laboratory to the site,” said Ochieng.

Each sample of soil costs approximately Sh1,300 to test. This includes the fertilizer recommendation for prioritised crops, and suggesting a range of other crops that can perform well in the tested soil based on the results and the prevailing climatic conditions in that particular area.

Though there is evidence that some soils are already becoming acidic due to overuse of particular fertilizers, experts say that use of fertilizers and other appropriate farm inputs in Africa remains far below average.

“The most important thing is to get the required fertilizer recommendations, and employ integrated soil fertility management,” said Rebbie Harawa of AGRA. “We cannot feed Africa, say using organic fertilizers alone. We must integrate,” she told the Seeds of Gold.

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