Maggots are the key to crisis fertilizer for Ugandan farmers


KAYUNGA, Uganda (AP) — Moses Wamugango peered into the plastic vats where maggots squirmed in the rotting dirt, the enviable project of a neighbor who spoke of the fertilizer problem he was able to solve.

The maggots are the larvae of the black soldier fly, an insect whose digestive system effectively converts food waste into organic fertilizer. Farmers would normally despise them if they weren’t so valuable.

“I want the maggots too,” Wamugango said. The agriculture officials, who are giving out the kegs for free, took his name two weeks ago and said they would give him four to start with. “I’m still waiting. The last time they came they didn’t reach me. That’s the problem I’m having right now.”

Uganda is a regional food basket, but rising commodity prices attributed to Russia’s war in Ukraine are hurting farmers. Fertilizer prices have doubled or tripled, with some popular products hard to find in the market, according to the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership, a non-profit organization that supports agriculture across the continent.

Most of the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa comes from small farmers who do family labor. Farming experts want governments and outside benefactors to give them more support, including through subsidies.

Some, who for years have warned against over-reliance on chemical fertilizers, see larval rearing as a model attempt at sustainable organic farming. They hope the program can be ramped up one farmer at a time. Larval rearing programs also exist in other countries, including Nigeria and neighboring Kenya, where parts of the country are suffering from drought.

In this Ugandan farming region not far from the capital Kampala, hundreds of small farmers have devoted themselves to farming the short-lived but fertile insect.

As synthetic fertilizer prices rose, so did the number of farmers who signed up, presenting many with the challenge of how to care for demanding crops like coffee. From just two participants in January 2021, the number is now more than 1,300 larvae breeders.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial. The groups that supply farmers with young larvae and vats, disposal company Marula Proteen and agricultural exporter Enimiro, are assured of a constant supply of larvae for their ongoing breeding efforts. Farmers are guaranteed a triple cash profit for the 14 days they raise larvae on food waste, leaving the remaining mix of larvae droppings and compost to feed their gardens.

“I used to be scared of maggots,” said farmer Joseph Wagudoma, the owner of eight vats he received in February. “If I heard someone raise maggots, I would say, ‘How can someone raise maggots?'”

His fear evaporated when he saw an early recruit dipping his hands free into a vat.

Wagudoma now makes about $10 from every two-week harvest, enough to buy groceries and even put some cash aside. His hens no longer stray too far away and linger under the suspended vats to catch any larvae that hatch. He regularly pours the watery compost around the coffee and vanilla plants, which he believes are always looking healthier.

“The sun burned people’s plants and they died. But for me, the fertilizer I have keeps my soil cold and nice,” said the father of six. “My coffee plants are blooming more beautifully now than they used to. I found something good in maggots. I get some money and I also get fertilizer.”

In Kayunga district, the headquarters of an expanding larval rearing program in central Uganda, an early challenge was to overcome farmers’ skepticism about maggot viability. Now agricultural advisors are facing overwhelming interest from farmers, said Enimiro’s Muhammad Magezi.

“Now many of them even come to our hub, to the gates, to ask about the larvae,” he said. The goal of registering 2,000 farmers in Kayunga is within reach, and a similar project is underway in western Uganda.

The larval rearing program is “a real solution” to hunger, heavy reliance on imported fertilizers and climate change, said Ruchi Tripathi of London-based group VSO, which supports farming communities around the world.

“We can no longer produce by destroying our soils,” she said. “How much can you exploit the soils and how long do you think this will continue?”

The growing popularity of the larval rearing program means there is hope in some African countries to move away from synthetic fertilizers, she said.

African cities would do well to have facilities like one in Kampala, which use a fraction of the tons of daily waste to feed its larval breeding center, said Tommie Hooft van Huijsduinen of the Marula Proteen group, which supports outgrowers in Kayunga.

With the price of synthetic fertilizer now discouragingly high for some farmers, his plant has more orders than it can supply, he said. At $11 per 50-kilogram sack, his product is four times cheaper than synthetic fertilizers on the market — and sought after by commercial coffee growers who measure his performance.

“What we saw is that before the war in Ukraine we were looking for customers and convinced them to come and try it,” he said. Now that has changed: “I wish I had more fertilizer.”

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