By Mary Hearty

Africa is currently facing rapid population growth that has contributed to increased demand for food. As a result, the continent is forced to import close to US$ 35 million worth of food and this is expected to grow to approximately US$ 210 million by 2025 if not addressed, according to the African Development Bank.

In addition, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2022- world’s key producers and exporters of agricultural commodities such as fertilizers and cereals has equally exacerbated food insecurity in the region due to shortages, placing more Africans at risk of acute starvation.

Also, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that the fertilizer shortage could push an additional seven million people into food scarcity.

In this regard, Luke Williams, Australian High Commissioner to Kenya, during the launch of the PROTeinAfrica project in Nairobi, emphasized the need to invest in insect farming technology- a new circular economy project that promises to make agriculture more sustainable- in order to simultaneously produce insect-composed organic fertilizer, animal feed and food for human consumption.

“There are multiple uses of insects that can be derived from farming insects in a way that ensures we can add value to protein and fertilizer. We are aware that the Ukrainian war is creating shortages of crop fertilizers, so if we can develop an indigenous solution here in Africa to develop alternative sources of crop fertilizers that would be beneficial to the farmers, it could actualize,” he explained.

Luke Williams 

Williams described the by-products from insects such as the Black Soldier flies as good ingredients for making high-quality compost fertilizers that is sustainable as and it significantly increases crop water use efficiency, nutrient uptake, soil organic matter content and, eventually, improves crop yields.

To realize this, the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya called for collaborations among all actors both in the private and public sectors to support this sustainable solution to provide food for the population.

Dr Segenet Kelemu, Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) also shared similar sentiments noting that the innovation is good for the environment and sustainable food security not just for Africa but also other parts of the world as it turns wastes into fertilizers as well as animal feed using insects.

Currently, the organic waste that is produced in Africa, which only 4-5% is recycled, is close to 125 million tons per year. The accumulating waste in landfills produce emissions of several greenhouse gases (GHGs), which contribute to global climate change.

Dr. Segenet Kelemu

Ongoing research

“We are experimenting to analyze the best substrate to raise the insects, and analyzing the nutrient content of the fertilizer and trying on different crops and comparing it to commercial based fertilizer,” Dr Segenet revealed.

Following an analysis done by researchers at icipe, organic fertilizer is quite better than the inorganic ones.

Dr Sevgan Subramanian, a Principal Scientist, icipe during his presentation at the event explained: “We developed various organic fertilizers and tested it on various crops, especially high value vegetable crops such as tomatoes, French beans, kale and maize. The yield increase because of the organic fertilizers are quite significant compared to conventional fertilizers.”

With the insect proteins that are produced, Dr Subramanian said they are estimating close to around 330,000 tons of frass fertilizers that could be produced in East Africa, he emphasized that this is very critical at this moment because the cost of fertilizers is drastically increasing.

“The price of the imported ones are increasing. So we need to look at a long term plan, how we can produce our own fertilizers, and organic fertilizers are the way to go,” he affirmed.

Moreover, these findings are backed up by other research publications that show that the organic fertilizers is much better than the commercial fertilizer, especially in this era of climate change.

This knowledge is being used to generate the evidence for policy makers to use and create an enabling environment, and to support the private sector with the know-how to expand this. So far, icipe has created awareness with more than three million people around the globe.

Dr Subramanian

Missing Links

For the demand of organic fertilizers to increase, Dr Subramanian said it has to have a clear value chain as this is the major missing link.

“The reason why governments got to the subsidized fertilizers is because there is a clear value chain supply. They know where they can buy it and the price, which is what is lacking in organic fertilizers,” he explained.

“The price of a 50 kilogram of DAP is Ksh7000 (about USD 70) while the subsidized fertilizer is now coming at around Ksh3500 (about USD 35) for 50 kilograms bag. So if we calculate that into one kilogram is around Ksh70 (about one dollar). I compare the same amount of fertilizer to some of the organic fertilizers, is around Ksh2100 (about USD 21), yet it does not have clear value chain,” Dr Subramanian said, urging that focus should be geared towards demonstrating the potential of organic fertilizers at the grass root level to create the demand.

If we do this right, he continued, then we create a clear value chain for the organic fertilizers, and so we will not go for the imported ones because it can give value.

“Every protein produced we get around five  to six kilograms of organic fertilizer. We can start producing frass fertilizers also from our own resources. This is a key option that we can take up from the insect-frass fertilizers,” Dr Subramanian said.

The ProteinAfrica project is aimed at up-scaling the benefits of insect-based animal feed technologies for sustainable agricultural intensification in Africa as well as producing organic crop fertilizers.