US technology helps improve yields in drought-stricken Africa

Africa’s more frequent and severe droughts are hampering food production, especially in dry parts of the continent where farmers struggle to make ends meet. A water retention system developed in the United States is helping African farmers buck the trend and improve yields in drought-stricken areas.

Under the hot sun in the village of Ulilinzi in southeastern Kenya, farmers are engaged in a unique preparation of the land.

They install specially designed polyethylene membranes in the ground, which look like transparent covers, to prevent the loss of moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Exacerbated by drought due to climate change, the sandy soil in this area, as in most arid and semi-arid regions, has made it nearly impossible to produce abundant crops.

However, this new water retention technology developed in the US is giving farmers here new hope.

Alvin Smucker is a professor of soil biophysics at Michigan State University who developed the technology.

“We had major government funding going into millions and millions of dollars to put all these systems together. And then test it in Texas, Arizona, California and Michigan. And these… we… and the four universities that worked with us. So it’s not something that we just put a little container in the backyard—my backyard—and now we say it’s the best in the world. It has been tested,” he said.

Shem Kuyah, a researcher at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, is one of the scientists leading trials of the technology in Kenya.

“We tested the technology with the cowpea[s]. We also tested the technology with corn and found that the farms where we installed these membranes were more productive,” said Kujah.

The technology has so far been tested in Zimbabwe and Kenya and is receiving good reviews.

Florence Mutisya, a farmer from Ulilinzi village, implemented the technology on his farm.

She said when technology came, she was trained on how to make her farm with sandy soil fertile. “I saw the benefits and implemented it on my farm. And I can say that this technology works very well because now I understand [a] good harvest.”

A few meters away, Anne Mutunga is harvesting cabbage on her farm.

“This technology is very good.” She posed before continuing. “I can tell it’s good because when I used it in my trial farm, I harvested a lot of maize,” explains Mutunga. “Even now we are very happy because, as you can see, we have vegetables that you cannot find anywhere else here,” she says, beaming with a smile.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture is among the organizations leading trials of the subsurface water retention technology in the sub-Saharan region, which it says could lead to a green revolution in the long term, as Silvia Nyavira, a researcher at the center, explains.

“In addition to the technology, farmers, if they continue to apply, for example, manure, retain their plant residues in the soil, reduce tillage. Then there is an accumulation of organic matter. So even five years from now, the yields we’re seeing in plots that have the technology are expected to be much higher.”

Besides improving yields, experts say the technology could also help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon.

“When you increase productivity, crops are able to take carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in their biomass. And when this material is incorporated into the soil, it increases the organic matter in the soil. And by increasing the organic matter in the soil, you are able to fix carbon dioxide that was once in the atmosphere. You can lock it in the soil,” Kuya said.

A key disadvantage of this new water retention technology is the high cost and labor involved. It costs between US$1,250 and US$2,000 to purchase specialized membranes to cover one hectare of land.

The challenge now is to make this technology available to farmers in remote areas who need it most.

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