Rocks to Ash – Exciting Initiative on Mount Cameroon – Part 1
Creating a soil amendment that provides essential nutrients for crop growth is critical to combating climate change and increasing food security in Cameroon. This is essentially what Valentine Nzengung, professor in the department of Geology at the University of Georgia and president of Food and Energy Security Cameroon (FESCAM), is studying.
FESCAM is developing a product – QwikGro – that will revitalize soil productivity and soil health in Cameroon and elsewhere. Dr. Nzengung describes FESCAM as “a non-profit corporation based in the US with the mission of developing sustainable solutions for meeting food and energy security challenges in developing countries.” Recently, while he was in Cameroon, we interviewed him about his on-going project. This interview is detailed below.
Dr. Nzengung described some of the challenges his project faces. With a population of more than 12 million people, Cameroon must produce sufficient quantities of food to meet rising demand. Up to 60% of the country is engaged in agricultural activities, with the majority of production concentrated in the fertile region near the southern part of the Cameroon Volcanic Line. However, in other parts of the country, unsustainable farming practices and conversion to cattle ranching have severely degraded the soils. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the country is located in the tropics, which tends to lead to nutrient-poor soils that are generally not suitable for intensive cultivation. Soils within this region tend to be weathered and contain high contents of iron and aluminum oxides, the latter of which contributes to acidic conditions harmful for crop growth.
Given these limitations, remineralization – a technique which introduces minerals back to the soil via adding rock dust and other natural minerals – is highly attractive for farmers. Dr. Nzengung’s QwikGro relies on this principle to restore soil health.
So far FESCAM has established a pilot facility to produce QwikGro in the outskirts of the coastal city of Limbe. The site was strategically chosen for its position at the base of Mount Cameroon, an active volcano that provides the necessary raw materials.
During the interview with Dr. Nzengung, he expressed that Cameroon holds a lot of potential as a study and production site. In the Cameroon Volcanic Line region, occasional eruptions create nutrient-rich young soil. Furthermore, the humid climate supports more water-intensive production than surrounding regions. Geographically, Cameroon sits on the border of Chad and the Central African Republic, both of which are semi-arid countries with large populations and high food demands. The ability to produce higher quantities of food without harming the soils will have important implications for addressing food insecurities in Cameroon and its surrounding regions.
Through spreading QwikGro, the project aims to use natural resources such as biomass to increase the mineral content of soils in Cameroon. Previous efforts seeking to improve soil quality were unable to manufacture products as effectively and at as large of a scale as FESCAM. They are currently producing QwikGro at 20 tons per week.
In the future, Dr. Nzengung hopes to address food insecurities not only through increasing crop yield, but also through empowering the local communities by relying on more well-rounded, locally-sourced amendments.
“Our target is to move [the use of QwikGro] towards the north and the northwest, where the soils are very depleted and need to be restored,” Dr. Nzengung answers when asked about the long-term goals of the project.
What is QwikGro?
QwikGro is a soil amendment consisting of volcanic ash, biochar, and manure. The biochar comes from accumulated biomass from the byproducts of agriculture processing. As the third largest biomass producing country in Africa, Cameroon offers abundant materials for the making of soil amendments for remineralization purposes.
QwikGro provides more benefits over conventional artificial fertilizers in several aspects. Because it is organic, it doesn’t harm the crops or the workers applying the amendment. The product contains a rich source of micro and macronutrients instead of concentrated N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, the primary constituents of artificial fertilizers), thus it can be applied to any type of soil. At the same time, QwikGro promotes soil microbial health, expands the water retention properties of the soil and also increases the alkalinity of the soil. Furthermore, because biochars are made of carbon, integrating the amendment into the soil helps sequester carbon for thousands of years, a win-win solution that combats both food insecurities and climate change.
Currently FESCAM has donated 64,000kg of QwikGro to farmers and partnering institutions for testing. Feedback thus far has been positive, and demands have increased substantially. In fact, the consumer base of QwikGro now extends beyond Limbe to the Littoral and Southwest regions of Cameroon.
In order to oversee the process, Dr. Nzengung visited Limbe three times over the past six months. Last December was his first trip to build the infrastructures necessary to begin production. The trip lasted a total of 21 days and was successful in producing limited amounts of QwikGro.
Earlier this year he returned again in March to evaluate the production progress and train more personnel. Production had increased to a level of 20 tons per week.
Recently, he returned again to oversee the start of a new experiment that is a collaborative effort between FESCAM and the Cameroon Development Corporation. The experiment compares crop growth using artificial fertilizer versus growth using QwikGro in banana plantations (two hectares in area). The first nine months will be spent on growing the banana seedlings to maturity before collecting data on tree health, soil content, and nutrient content in the fruits. The results at this stage will determine what happens next.
Scaling up: Challenges and goals
If things progress smoothly, the Cameroon Development Corporation plans to scale up the experiment to more than 300 hectares. However, prior to that, they have to address several challenges.
In order to expand the scale of testing and meet product demands, FESCAM first has to increase their production capacity. The current process of manufacturing QwikGro is entirely manual. From the sieving of volcanic ash, to the grinding and mixing of materials, to the final stage of bagging the product, every step relies on extensive manual labor and time. On average, the whole process of making QwikGro lasts for three weeks. Dr. Nzengung commented that in the near future, they hope to optimize the process by mechanizing the operations in order to produce more efficiently and in larger quantities.
So far the project is primarily funded by Dr. Nzengung and FESCAM. Dr. Nzengung has been actively traveling between different locations in Cameroon to offer training and workshops for other nonprofit and microcredit organizations. He hopes to collaborate with more partners to receive additional grants for expanding the scale and impact of the project.
Remineralize the Earth is committed to furthering remineralization efforts globally. Our grant writing team plans to support the project in landing additional funding. Furthermore, we are also partnering with a company that is developing a small-scale portable rock grinder, currently designed to use gas or biofuels with the potential of a solar alternative, ideal for international development projects. We look forward to working with FESCAM and Dr. Nzengung to work towards a sustainable, more food-secure world!
Zu Dienle Tan recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master’s degree in natural resources and environment. She specializes in conservation ecology and is passionate about biodiversity conservation, agroecosystems and sustainable development.
Dr. Valentine Nzengung is professor of Environmental Geochemistry at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on the development and evaluation of innovative technologies for the cleanup of water, sediment, and soils. He is also an environmental professional experienced in the development and application of innovative green technologies for addressing emerging and complex environmental challenges.