FSE 2: Growing hope: Can organic fertiliser end soil degradation and enhance crop nutrition in Malawi?

Faculty: Science and Engineering

Supervisors: Dr Olivia Norfolk, Dr Marcus Travers and Dr Michelle Hawkins

Interview date: 28 May 2021

Sub-Saharan Africa faces rapid population growth and environmental degradation that threaten future food security. The Malawian government subsidises the use of synthetic fertilisers in an attempt to enhance crop yields. Manufacturing synthetic fertilisers is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The products are subsequently lost in high quantities through run-off into waterways, reducing their on-farm effectiveness, while polluting the wider environment. Drinking water then requires expensive purification to remove these toxins.

Dr Norfolk is currently leading a Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) project with collaborators from the Malawian Agricultural Research Institute, which is trialling a newly developed organic fertiliser as a sustainable alternative. This product is produced from freely available cattle waste sourced from local abattoirs, which is typically disposed of in rivers, causing serious health risks for villages downstream.

The research team have established a protocol that uses wormeries to degrade this nutrient-rich waste, producing a safe organic fertiliser that matches the nutrient levels of synthetic equivalents. The waste treatment facility also provides the opportunity to sustainably dispose of other organic waste within the local community, thereby further improving the local environment.

Preliminary trials are underway to assess the efficacy of the organic fertiliser against synthetic products. While the chemical nature of the organic product is comparable to the synthetic equivalent, the trials will assess whether the organic alternative can improve soil health, soil quality, the yields of tomato and maize crops, and their quality.

To establish the wider viability of this product, it will be necessary to expand these initial trials to see how benefits vary across different growing conditions and geographics. The outcome will be a sustainable, robust and resilient production process that will greatly enhance the nutritional and environmental quality in the local area.

The project aim is to establish how the composition and quality of different soils are affected through repeated use of the fertilisers and to quantify the associated change in the nutritional content of the crops. With the support of a local agricultural charity, the project will also assess the effectiveness of the product in the field, working with local farmers to trial its efficacy across a range of environmental conditions and different crop types.

Outputs will include international peer-reviewed manuscripts, a strong Impact Case Study and an Advisory Report with clear action points for the Malawian government. Together, it is anticipated these key deliverables may demonstrate the benefit of recycling organic wastes into valuable commodities that can significantly improve human nutrition and the wider environment.

Please note it is highly desirable that applicants have previous experience of agricultural field research in low resource settings in sub-saharan Africa.

Apply online by 25 April

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2021/2 this will be £15,609 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and Conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.