By David Auerbach, Co-Founder, Sanergy
When Astronaut Mark Watney found himself stranded on Mars, he had to figure out a way to grow food in Martian soil. A botanist by training, he immediately knew the best way to make a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer: compost his own poop. He collected his own waste and other organic waste and let it decompose to provide useful nutrients to the Martian soil. With this mixture, he’s able to grow enough potatoes to ensure he’s fed long after his rations run out.
While The Martian is fiction, the science behind this is fairly accurate—at least for Earth’s soil. And although Mark was only trying to feed himself, his solution is also a good one for improving the strength of food systems on which millions of people rely.
In Kenya, where my company Sanergy operates, the resilience of the food system faces a variety of challenges. We work to address two of these: unhealthy soil and unhealthy chickens.
Declining soil fertility has contributed to the steady drop in Kenyan agricultural productivity since the 1960s. In the first decade after independence, the Kenyan agriculture sector had an annual average growth rate of 4.7 percent; by the 1990s, this had dropped to below 2 percent. In 2000, there was a negative growth rate of -2.4 percent.
At the same time, the Kenyan population has been growing at 2.7 percent annually, adding about 1 million people every year, and about 30 percent of the Kenyan population lives in cities. Most of Kenya’s population growth will now happen in urban areas. The total Kenyan population will double by 2045, while the urban population will more than quadruple in that time. The World Bank projects that by 2033, half of Kenyan residents will live in cities.
Declining soil fertility paired with an ever-growing population is a perfect storm for food systems. The country can’t afford to exacerbate the current situation: already, over 10 million Kenyans are food insecure, while 80 percent of the population relies on agriculture to earn their livelihoods.
Unless farmers focus on restoring soil health, crop production will continue to decline. The most effective way to restore nutrients to soil is to apply organic fertilizer to replace the organic matter that the soil is missing. However, very little organic fertilizer is produced domestically in Kenya; most of what is available to farmers is imported and thus prohibitively expensive. The primary organic input Kenyan farmers use is un-decomposed animal manure. The problem with using raw manure is that it does decompose while on the ground, consuming nitrogen from the soil and depriving plants of this necessary element.
So, in order to restore their soil fertility and boost their agricultural productivity, Kenyan farmers need a sustainably made, domestically produced organic fertilizer that they can rely on and that won’t break the bank.
To meet this need, Sanergy produces Evergrow Organic Fertilizer. Nutrient-rich and pathogen-free, Evergrow increases crop yields by at least 30 percent, while restoring the phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium that Kenyan soils so desperately need.
The second food system challenge Sanergy addresses is the need for a more reliable, sustainable process for producing animal feed to keep livestock healthy and growing. In Kenya, the use of manufactured animal feeds has increased over the past two decades. Currently, 400,000 tons of animal feed are produced in Kenya every year; however, this is dwarfed by the demand for it: 650,000 tons are needed. This shortfall is caused by the lack of raw materials necessary to make high-quality animal feed. As a result, Kenya’s livestock aren’t getting the calories and nutrients they need to grow, further weakening Kenya’s food system.
To help make up this shortfall, we produce PureProtein, a high-quality protein input for animal feeds that performs favorably with the current leading protein input: Omena, or fishmeal. Found in Lake Victoria in northwestern Kenya, Omena stocks are harvested unsustainably and frequently depleted by fishermen, so it is difficult for feed millers to count on a steady supply. And when they do receive Omena, it is often mixed with sand, shells, pieces of plastic, and other items fished out of Lake Victoria. Kenya’s feed millers appreciate the quality, consistency, and purity they can expect from PureProtein.
With Evergrow and PureProtein, Sanergy is offering solutions to strengthen Kenya’s food system, so that farmers are able to generate enough food to provide for Kenya’s growing urban centers. The best part, however, is that Evergrow and PureProtein are both made using an unlimited resource: human waste.
Sanergy runs a network of over 650 toilets in Nairobi’s slums that are used 30,000 times every day. On a regular basis, waste collectors visit each toilet to safely and professionally collect the waste, removing it from the community. Each day, we collect and remove 10 tons of waste that would otherwise end up polluting Kenya’s waterways and spreading disease.
To make Evergrow, we co-compost our toilet waste with maize cobs, rice husks, and lime, mixing it mechanically, and then letting it mature in windrows. Tested regularly for pathogens and nutrient content, the end product is ready in four to six months. We sell Evergrow to commercial farmers growing tomatoes, French beans, squash, and other vegetables for Kenya’s expanding urban populations.
To make PureProtein, we feed our toilet waste, along with other organic waste, to larvae of Black Soldier Flies. We harvest these flies, boil, and sun-dry them for a high-protein, low-fat, pathogen-free input for animal feeds. We sell the final product to feed millers, who much prefer its quality, consistency, and smell to that of Omena.
Currently, there are 8 million people living in Kenya’s urban slums, and this number will only grow as Kenya’s cities get bigger. Most sanitation solutions in these areas are inadequate, and Sanergy’s solution is gaining popularity. By 2020, we will be serving 500,000 people every day, collecting and removing 45,000 tons of waste per year, which we will convert into end products to help farmers build a sustainable and robust food system.
At our core, we are a waste management company, but the best way to achieve our mission of ensuring the sustainable provision of safe sanitation for all is to prove that value can be derived from waste. We strive to make end products that customers want, need, and will use to improve their own lives, their communities, and their country. By converting the waste we collect into organic fertilizer and animal feed, we have introduced a sustainable way to produce agricultural inputs that will help East Africa repair its soils, feed its animals, and achieve food security.
As it turns out, you don’t have to be stranded on Mars to be innovative about food systems.