‘Lab in hand’ makes soil testing fun

By Marion Wagaki

[rt_dropcap_style dropcap_content=”ESEARCHERS at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) are studying two soil testing innovations that could enable farmers receive information about soil fertility and recommend fertiliser use in real time.”]

The innovations, including a handheld scanner that can give results within 10 minutes of soil testing, are thought to be considerably more efficient and affordable than the conventional methods. “We use the hand-held scanner by placing it on top of the soil.

The beams reflect on the soil, and then through electronic magnetic waves, it is able to pick up the nutrients from the soil, and speak to a cloud database.

Based on a calibrated soil data that we have for Kenya, it’s able to tell you, what you need, what nutrients you need to apply in that particular field, based on a crop, so that you can attain increased production,” says Mukami Gitau, who works for AgroCares, the non-governmental organisation behind the soil testing technologies.

Dr Esther Gikonyo, a soil fertility and plant nutrition scientist based at KALRO’s Kabete station in Nairobi, said the new technologies have the potential to improve soil testing efficiency and cost-effectiveness by at least 25 percent. The data collected from recent field trials, she said, will be subjected to further statistical analysis to determine the most economical method.

“After validation in the field 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,” she said during a farmer’s field day in Ainamoi, Kericho County. “It is time for us to improve crop production in this country by looking at the management of soils in the next 10 years if we have to increase production and achieve food security.”

Dr Gikonyo is among scientists who have been studying the efficiency of analytical services and fertiliser use recommendations in Kenya under the Kenya Climate Smart Agricultural Project (KSCAP).

The project has been undertaken since 2020 in five counties – Kericho, Bomet, Machakos, Nyandarua and Nyeri.

KSCAP aims to facilitate 24 counties in the country to upscale climate-resilient technologies, innovations, and management practices to achieve increased productivity, enhanced resilience, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Soil testing is key to improving land productivity, food production and economic returns to the farmer while conserving the environment. But the conventional methods widely used currently such as Wet Chemistry are laborious and inefficient.

In 2017, AgroCares launched a Near InfraRed (NIR) soil scanner in Kenya, which gives farmers real-time information on the nutrient status of their soil. An app translates the soil data on the spot into fertiliser recommendations for the selected crops.

“In November 2018, AgroCares and Agriterra evaluated the use of the soil scanner at cooperative and farmer level to identify success factors, possible bottlenecks and the added value of innovative soil testing services for farmers.

The results are promising, with farmers having reported higher fertiliser efficiency, increased yields and, in general, willingness to pay for scans,” says Gitau of AgroCares.

Gitau says the tool is better off being used by a field extension officer or an agronomist to test the soil and interpret the results to the farmer. 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 Ksh 350 million and is mainly grown in the lower altitude subcounties, of Ainamoi, Sosiot and parts of Cheplanget and Kiptere. 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 performed a soil test 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.

The soil was found to be very acidic, but since the right fertilisers and manure were applied we have seen a lot of improvement in our bananas,” she said.

Dr. Esther Gikonyo, a soil scientist, on the field in Ainamoi, Kericho where KALRO is studying soil testing innovations. Photo Credit: Marion Wagaki

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