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Malawi: Turning urine into a source of wealth

Chimwemwe Padatha
March 17, 2020

A Malawian entrepreneur is harnessing the power of human urine as an organic fertilizer. His initiative has helped transform the lives of local farmers and is paving the way for more environmentally friendly agriculture.

A sorghum farmer inspects her plants in Simbabwe
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Njikizana

Smallholder farmers in Malawi are increasingly turning to organic fertilizer to boost their yields, as new innovations within the country allow the fertilizer to be sold at an affordable price – all thanks to an unusual ingredient.

For the past eight years, 62-year-old agriculturalist Goodfellow Phiri has been collecting urine from his urine-harvesting plant in the capital, Lilongwe. Located at Nsungwi Market in Area 25, people pay about 50 Malawian Kwacha ($67 cents, 58 euro cents) to use one of his two urinals. It's the ideal place for collecting as much urine as possible, Phiri explains.

"The market is very crowded, so every day we collect 20 liters of urine," he told DW. "It might seem like a small quantity, but you have to dilute it with water ten times, so it turns into 200 liters."

Once the urine has been 'harvested,' it is stored in airtight containers for a week before being put into tanks for processing. This also helps to remove the smell – a very important step, Phiri stresses.

Urine Fertilizer Container Malawi
Phiri's urine fertlizer is cheaper than the conventional chemical fertilizersImage: DW/C. Padatha

Using human urine as a fertilizer is nothing new – it's an excellent source of phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium and trace elements for plants. But with industrial fertilizers dominating the market for so long, organic fertilizers are emerging as a cheaper and possibly even more effective alternative.

Changing farming for the better

Thanks to his invention, Phiri has connected with local farmers and is encouraging them to make the switch to his organic fertilizer, instead of buying the more expensive, commercially available chemical fertilizer.

A 20 liter bucket of the organic fertilizer sells for several thousand kwacha – around $8. In contrast, a 50 kilogram bag of chemical fertilizer sells at about 20 thousand kwacha, or close to $30.

Farmer James Isaac has been using Phiri's fertilizer in his fields and is impressed with its quality.

"This [organic] fertilizer is very unique, unlike the chemical fertilizer," he told DW. "As you can see on this maize field, I have only used this fertilizer. We apply the fertilizer liquid in holes, just like we do with the chemical fertilizer. I have made good harvests in the past few years, unlike when I was using chemical fertilizers."

Phiri says it's no surprise that his organic fertilizer ultimately performs better out on the fields in the long-term.

"If you apply chemical fertilizer, you will get a bumper harvest instantly," he explains. "But if you keep applying this over the years, the soil will be degraded so your yield will go down every year. But the [organic fertilizer] boosts the fertility of the soil." 

Malawi is a big producer of tobacco which accounts for most of the country's agricultural income.

Communities also benefit

As well as assisting farmers, residents have also benefited from the profits of selling urine. A new – if somewhat unusual – business is beginning to thrive here. Phiri initially turned his idea into a small family-run initiative called "Urine for Wealth." It has since grown into a successful business and also receives funding from NGOs.

Urine for Wealth, Lilongwe, Malawi
Phiri's urine for wealth initiative has attracted support from a number of NGOsImage: DW/C. Padatha

"Phiri gives us his buckets so that we can fill them with urine and gives us money when we give him back the buckets with urine," one local woman who takes part in Phiri's business told DW. "The money is sometimes used to pay school fees for our children, because we don't have enough money to support our families."

An environmental game changer?

From an environmental perspective, experts believe innovative projects like Phiri's could go a long way towards improving the structure of the soil damaged by years of chemical fertilization. This way it will be able to retain more nutrients and allow for further development of sustainable agriculture projects. However, this also means changing attitudes within the country.

"As a country, we have failed to make bold decisions [on this issue]," environmentalist Dominic Nyasulu told DW. "If we look at the current scenario, we have invested billions towards using chemical fertilizer and pesticides that are not environmentally friendly."

Malawi has long lagged behind when it comes to agricultural productivity, partly due to the lack of clear and coherent policies on the use of fertilizer. Nyasulu believes Malawi needs to adapt much faster to new, environmentally-friendly farming methods.