The Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) has been undertaking research that will result in improved capacity and efficiency of analytical services and fertilizer use in soils.
The research project has been undertaken since 2020 under the Kenya Climate Smart Agricultural Project (KSCAP) in five counties under three value chains namely Banana in Kericho and Bomet counties, Green grams and Pigeon peas in Machakos and Irish Potatoes in Nyandarua and Nyeri Counties.
According to Dr Esther Gikonyo, the soil fertility and plant nutrition scientist based at KALRO Kabete, said that the soil fertility in the country has been declining because of continuous cropping without sufficient application of nutrients and proper management of the soils leading to degradation.
“It is time for us to improve crop production in this country by looking at the management of soils in the next ten years if we have to increase production leading to food security in this Country,” Gikonyo said during a farmer’s field day in Ainamoi, Kericho County, to validate and mainstream soil diagnostics for analytical services and fertilizer use recommendations in Kenya.
“In all of these Counties, the basic things we are looking at is how we can improve and manage the soil fertility because that is the basis of crop production and is the only way to increase production of all crops,” she said.
Soil testing, she added, is one of the important tools that is used in research, in policy formulation and used for improvement of the farmers’ field and although there are various methods of soil testing, KALRO has been using conventional methods that have been tested over a long time, are a bit laborious and not efficient .
Other technologies, she said, are coming up and that KALRO is trying out the spectral techniques and innovative equipment that have come and can be used in soil testing namely the scanner and also ‘Lab in a box.’
The two, Gikonyo said, are innovations from Agro care, a nongovernmental organization that they have been working with in the project to test soil against the conventional method of soil testing known as the Wet Chem.
Gikonyo noted that the ultimate goal of the adoption of the innovative soil testing could enhance land productivity, increase food quantity and quality in the most cost-effective way thereby increasing the economic returns to the farmer while conserving the environment.
The data collected, she explained, will be subjected to statistical analysis to remove any bias and once analysed, will give the highest yield and which one is the most economical method.
“After validation in the field day, we will come up with recommendations on the way forward and I am very optimistic that the results will be suitable for farmers and clients as well as testing services will now be decentralized at counties and thus increase soil testing by farmers,” she said.
Gikonyo said that adoption of the two analytical services have the potential for improved efficiency, high output and cost-effectiveness by at least 25 percent.
Mukami Gitau who works for AgroCares Limited and whose innovation is the portable handheld scanner that is able to test soils at the farm, said within ten minutes of testing a farmer’s soil, they can be able to get the status, what nutrients it needs for a farmer to get good quality of their crop.
“We use the hand held scanner by placing it top of the soil, the beams here reflect on the soil, and then through what we call electronic magnetic waves, it is able to pick up the nutrients from the soil, and speak to a cloud database, already based on a calibrated, soil data that we have for Kenya, and it’s able to tell you, what you need, what nutrients you need to apply in that particular field, based for instance on banana, so that you can be able to see an increased production,” she explained.
Gitau advised that the tool might not be for the farmer per se to do but a field extension officer or an agronomist can be able to walk with the tool and be able to test the farmer’s soil and also interpret the results to the farmer.
Having worked with KALRO in the project, Gitau recommended that the government should invest in the soil scanner as it is a more strategic tool in the sense that it generates data that is very key to the government in terms of production and fertilizer trends as well as be able to assist local farmers access the fertilizer relevant to the needs of the area.
Rose Chepkwony, a farmer from Lariat Village, Kericho County, and whose land was used for experimental treatments, said she had been farming for over 20 years but never for once used to test her soil before planting.
“When KALRO came in 2020 and taught us about soil testing so that we can know what is lacking and what is needed, I allowed them to test my soil and they also gave me the bananas to plant by using five treatments so that we can compare,” she said.
Chepkwony explained once tested, most of their soil were found to be very acidic and KALRO assisted in giving them the type of fertilizer and manure needed for their kind of soils.
“Since the right ingredients were put in the soil, we have seen a lot of improvement in our Banana and you cannot compare for example, the wet chemistry recommendation which is giving us a very huge banana,” she said.
Chepkwony said that if KALRO adopted the scanner which ensures testing within the farm and getting the results within a short time, it will be helpful to farmers as it will cut on their expenses and will not have a farmer who wants to test their soil travel all the way to KALRO Kabete.
In Kericho where the field day was held, banana cultivation is practiced by 41-60 percent of the population for subsistence and commercial purposes. The area under banana cultivation is about 423 ha, valued at about Sh350 million and is mainly grown in the lower altitude sub-counties, of Ainamoi, Sosiot and parts of Cheplanget and Kiptere.
KALRO’s obligation in KSCAP is to facilitate 24 counties in the country to upscale climate resilient technologies, innovations, and management practices (TIMPS) to achieve triple-wins of increased productivity, enhanced resilience, and reduced greenhouse emissions.