As a soil scientist, Marana resident Thomas Crawford is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled there on a number of consulting projects over the year, but his most recent trip was of a different nature.
Crawford recently traveled to Angola as a volunteer of the United States Agency for International Development-supported Farmer-to-Farmer program to help a remote village learn the art of composting so they could grow a wider variety of crops and become more self-sufficient.
Crawford spent two weeks in Angola with SOS CEDIA, a non-governmental organization that “implements programs focused on improving the lives of Angola’s children and those that influence their lives,” and Associação Mulher Feliz, a project to help village women grow vegetables and other crops.
“These women have very few resources and have to rely on whatever they can produce horticulturally for income,” Crawford said. “It was thought that composting might be a way for them to utilize locally available resources to increase the fertility of their soil that they use to produce their vegetables.”
The area in which the women’s co-op resides is very difficult to grow crops. They were able to grow manioc, also known as cassava, which is a root vegetable, but not much else. The hope was that if they could grow the wider variety of crops, they could not only produce more food for the village, but also sell the crops to obtain other items they need.
During his two weeks in Zaire Province of Angola, Crawford taught local agronomists how to sample soils and test soil fertility and taught village women to make compost, though Crawford feels the actual results fell a little short of expectations.
Crawford retired in 2014 and since then he had made four trips to Africa, with the fourth being the Angola trip with the Farmer to Farmer program. Since Crawford speaks Portuguese (among a number of other languages), Angola was a natural fit because many people still speak the language they were introduced to in the days when it was a Portuguese colony.
Equipped with a composting thermometer and a soil test kit he purchased locally in Oro Valley, Crawford made his way to Angola. He spent one night in Luanda, Angola’s capital, then ventured to M’Banza Congo where he would stay for the remainder of his trip. He would make the daily trek from M’Banza Congo to the village of Kuzi, where the cooperative is located.
The Mulher Feliz (Happy Woman) cooperative was initially funded by a program of the Spanish government but the funds were drying up and the hope was that increased agriculture could help them.
In addition to Crawford, there were several agronomists on site to look into the soil fertility issues and Crawford lent his expertise to help them take soil samples and figure out what could be done. They soon discovered the soil had a ph level of 4, which is extremely acidic.
“A problem with that high soil acidity is you get aluminum toxicity,” he said. “Aluminum toxicity impedes the growth of plants. Some plants can tolerate it, like manioc can tolerate it, but most veg crops have a hard time growing.”
They also learned that the soil had just trace levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are important to plant growth.
“As I saw it, once we did that chemical testing, these poor women are fighting an uphill battle to produce vegetables they can sell in the local markets,” Crawford said.
The other part of his trip centered on trying to help the women use composting to enrich the soil, but that too had less than stellar results. The women were not able to make a large amount of compost while Crawford was there.
“The hope that they might be able to use compost to increase the fertility of their soil is unrealistic,” Crawford said. “The amount of compost they were able to make while I was there was extremely small and insufficient for fertilizing or improving the soil fertility.”
Crawford felt that the condition of the soil explains why the country has seen such a huge migration of people from rural areas to the capital cities.
“They cannot sustain economic activities if the soils are not properly fertilized, and in this case limed to bring the ph up,” he said. “It was a very eye opening experience for me.”
Crawford explained that the soil was a natural byproduct of the region’s weather, which has an extreme dry season followed by intense rains. Over the course of thousands of years, the minerals have been leached out of the soil. Although it would be a big undertaking, Crawford explained that while the Angolan government does have some resources stemming from oil royalties from the Atlantic, the villages in the northwest portion of the country are low priority.
All hope is not lost for the villages. The non-profit that owns the land the co-op is on has been working on a grant proposal to get lime and fertilizer to improve the chances to grow crops. Crawford said for the 95 hectares, just under 245 acres, that the village utilizes, it would take several thousand dollars of lime and fertilizer to make a difference.
The women in the village were receptive to the training for composting, but they were not able to create a big pile. He had hoped to have a pile that was at least a cubic meter, but said the women were only able to go down less than a foot.
Despite the slow start, there is hope that they will use the technique to improve small gardens using household “green” waste and “brown” waste such as dry leaves and dry grass they can compost.
“They are kind, gentle people who live a very hard life.”