Rocks to Ash – Exciting Initiative on Mount Cameroon – Part 2
Previously we covered Professor Valentine Nzengung’s remineralization project in Cameroon, where his team is developing an organic fertilizer product (QwikGro) to restore nutrients to the soils. At the end of the last interview, Nzengung mentioned that FESCAM is conducting field trials with the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) to test the effect of QwikGro on banana growth.
In this instalment, we will continue with the progress of his latest trip and discuss the impacts of remineralization on local communities in Cameroon.
Remineralization in Cameroon
Are the crops greener and healthier? This is the question that FESCAM and farmers ask during the initial stages of QwikGro application. For the farmers, seeing is believing. In order for them to accept the new product as a viable substitute for artificial fertilizers, they must be able to – quite literally – see the effects QwikGro has on the crops. In this case, having treatment plots with and without QwikGro application provides a strong visual demonstration of QwikGro’s effects. Earlier application of QwikGro in corn fields has yielded a substantial difference in the quality of the crops. Corn stalks grown with the product are significantly greener and lusher than those without.
The CDC provided three hectares of their banana plantation for testing QwikGro. One hectare was treated with QwikGro only, one hectare with a 50-50 QwikGro and artificial fertilizer mix, and the remaining hectare with artificial fertilizer only to serve as a control plot. The researchers also varied the way they applied QwikGro to determine the most effective application method for plants to maximize nutrient uptake. QwikGro was applied either at the bottom of the planting hole or mixed with topsoil and applied as fill soil during planting. The experiment will run for nine months before the banana trees mature and the CDC can collect results.
Aside from the experiment, a large part of the trip was dedicated to increasing the production capacity of QwikGro. Thus far demand for the product has outstripped supply and FESCAM is under pressure to crank up their output. Nzengung sees this as a sign that farmers are already seeing the appeal of QwikGro and are highly receptive to the product. In the latest trip, FESCAM doubled the operation of their facility and production capacity. Previously they were producing at 20 tons per week; now they have increased the production capacity to 40 tons per week. Even with the increased capacity, they are still short of meeting demands and hope to continue scaling up production.
Nzengung contends that addressing food security issues alone is not enough: finding alternative energy options is also crucial to improving the wellbeing of people in the region. For this reason, FESCAM is working on a subproject to address energy issues in the region. They are converting biochar to charcoal as an alternative to firewood. This would greatly decrease the demand for firewood and reduce deforestation.
Supporting the conversion to organic sources of fertilizers is easier said than done. QwikGro’s production rate is largely limited by the amount of labor available. FESCAM is hoping to receive additional funding for purchasing tractors and other machines to expedite the process. In particular, they are urgently looking for rock grinders to help reduce the volcanic rocks to appropriate sizes for mixing with biochar. This will also entail finding a constant source of energy to power the operation. Currently they rely on small solar panel units to generate electricity, but they will need to switch to a larger system if they want to expand the project. Additional funding is also required to hire staff to man the project. As of now the team consists of only 10 full-time staff, along with a few part-time employees. In order to resolve these challenges and scale up the project, FESCAM is actively seeking for developing partners interested in the project and its mission of reducing food and energy insecurities in Cameroon.
This project carries important implications for Cameroon. Food and energy security are two primary needs in the region. Every year, large numbers of people migrate away from the south Sahara region toward the northern hemisphere in hopes of attaining better livelihoods in Europe. Tensions between residents and immigrants lead to border conflicts and civil wars. Nzengung explains that hunger and poverty are the main drivers of the exodus. Although natural resources are not scarce in the south, many of them are trapped in forms inaccessible to farmers. Hence, FESCAM is using technology to tap into these resources and make them available for agricultural production. In turn, increased production in Cameroon has the potential to open up employment opportunities and reduce hunger- and poverty-driven migration.
There are numerous significant benefits to using a locally-sourced organic fertilizer rather than the government-subsidized synthetic fertilizers that flood the market. First of all, the cost of a local product is lower compared to imported artificial fertilizers, leaving farmers with more money to invest in other needs. In addition, it removes farmer dependency from externally-sourced fertilizers. Finally, organic fertilizers do not pose as big of a health risk to farmers as synthetic fertilizers.
That said, Nzengung and his team are not content with merely developing a product. They are also concerned with deeper social and cultural issues involving food sovereignty and gender equality. FESCAM partners with women’s groups, microcredit organizations, and farmer cooperatives to educate them about healthier, lower-cost organic methods of production. They have approached farmer cooperatives to hold workshops and demonstrations. Some of the cooperatives include as many as 1,000 farmers. These farmers have been integral in spreading information about organic farming via word of mouth to other members of the community.
To further their goal of educating farmers about organic farming, FESCAM has donated large amounts of QwikGro to various communities and organizations. According to Nzengung, feedback thus far has been immensely positive, and the fact that more people are buying QwikGro is a testament to the product’s benefits.
In the future, FESCAM hopes to garner enough support to send a team out to conduct surveys and collect testimonials from farmers. For now, FESCAM is focused on increasing production and waiting for results to come back from the banana plantation experiment. They will also continue reaching out to more organizations and local communities.
When asked about how long the project will last, Nzengung laughs. He anticipates this to be a long ongoing project. How rapidly they progress is contingent on future partnerships and funding. For now, FESCAM is a modest company making small, but important, contributions to addressing larger problems.
FESCAM remains committed to reducing food and energy insecurities in Cameroon and ameliorating climate change. They are open to interested partners, regardless of national origins, and would be more than happy to show others what they have achieved in Cameroon.
 “About Us.” Cameroon Development Corporation. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2016. <http://cdc-cameroon.net/new2014/about-cdc/>.
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.
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