Changing attitudes to night-soil in Tanzania

Patrick Mwalukisa

Farmers in Ileje district rarely used night-soil, believing it to be unsafe. One farmer’s efforts started a change in thinking and now night-soil is a valued commodity. As benefits have been realised, changes in practice and attitudes, as well as improvements to soils, have been seen.

Cereal production has been declining in many parts of Tanzania, since the late 1970s when input subsidies were removed. In the late 1980s a study was conducted in Ileje district in the southern highlands, which revealed a high malnutrition rate and high mortality rate of the under 5s due to insufficient food intake per day. The major reason for this was judged to be low agricultural production, caused by poor soil fertility in the area. In response, COOPIBO (a Belgium NGO), CDTF (a Tanzanian NGO) and the Ileje District Council signed a tripartite agreement to form Ileje Food Crop Production Project (IFCPP) in 1988. IFCPP started to train smallholder farmers to practise resource efficient agriculture, through Participatory Research and Extension groups. The main objective of the new techniques was to use the naturally available resources for soil fertility improvement. This would be a way of reclaiming the land that has become exhausted due the intensive agriculture practised when there were enough industrial inputs subsidised by the government.

Mbebe is one of the villages where resource efficient agriculture techniques were introduced, but with great difficulties in changing people’s mindsets. Farmers were trained to decompose farmyard manure prior to application as basal fertilizer for maize production. This practice was possible for farmers with livestock. Farmers who had no animals started improving their farms by using other techniques such as crop residue burial, use of sunn hemp (Crotolaria juncea) and crotalaria (Crotalaria ochroleuca), crop rotation and compost.

Night-soil was introduced as another technique. When farmers were first introduced to it, they found it difficult to accept due to the fact that human waste was commonly regarded as unsafe, unhealthy and useless. However, one farmer, called Bahati Simbeye, secretly emptied his toilet which was about three years old, and used the materials for maize production. Some people saw what Bahati was doing, and found it interesting that the maize he planted was growing very well and looking healthier than in previous years. Bahati came to the office to report on what he had tried and asked us to go and look at his maize plot. We went and were impressed by his efforts. We asked him if we could bring some more farmers to his plot and he agreed. We then organised a farmers’ field day, inviting farmers from the surrounding villages. We showed them the different technologies practised, of which Bahati’s plot was a main attraction. All farmers who attended the field day appreciated what they saw and decided to try using night-soil. This happened in 2004.

In the following year, the number of farmers applying night-soil increased. The notion that human waste was useless declined with time. Farmers began buying the contents of old toilets for between 800 and 1000 Tanzanian shillings (US$ 1) per pit, which have now become a commodity in Ileje. Farmers who have been applying night-soil and other organic fertilizers have realised an average increase from two to fifteen 100kg bags of maize per acre. This has attracted many farmers to apply night-soil as basal and top dressing fertilizer. Because night soil was previously regarded as useless, latrine pits were constructed far away from homesteads, and were dug up to15 feet deep. Nowadays, toilets are constructed closer to the homestead and not to that depth. This has been done purposely to reduce the workload of emptying the pits. Other improvements have been made, such as putting crop residue and other organic material in the pits, to increase the volume of fertilizer.

Collection of night-soil

When the toilets are full with human waste, farmers cover them with soil, and leave them for at least two years for the decomposition process to take place. After this, the cover layer of soil is scraped off and the pits are emptied using spades and hand hoes. As protection from sharp materials farmers wear gloves and gumboots. Before using night-soil as fertilizer, people used to throw dangerous materials like broken glass and nails in latrines. Now, family members are aware of the danger of such material, and dispose of them elsewhere.

Night-soil has been found to be the best fertilizer, compared to other organic fertilizers as it tends to give a quick response, especially when used as top dressing. Farmers have noted that night-soil should be applied in small quantities as it may lead to crop burn (scorch) if applied in large amounts. They also mention that it is worth paying for this organic input, as yields are so much better than when no fertilizer at all is used. Fields planted with night-soil are fertile for more than two years. It is possible to get good harvests on the same plot for three years consecutively without applying other fertilizers.

While night-soil is ranked as one of the better organic fertilizers in the area, the major difficulty with it is the availability. In addition, some farmers still query whether it is hygienic and safe to handle with bare hands.

The application of organic fertilizer in Ileje district has reclaimed farmers’ land. The nature of the soil has improved in comparison to previous years. Crops are growing as well as they did before the introduction of chemical inputs.

Patrick M. Mwalukisa. Head of Agriculture Department, Ileje Rural Development Organisation, Box 160 Ileje, Tanzania.


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