Composting to Improve Crops and Human Health

By Miakoda Ford – Art in Tanzania Intern


With the observable changes to weather patterns, such as shifts in rain patterns, and intensified storms, rural communities in Tanzania are struggling to maintain their agricultural way of life. Continuing to produce the crops and quantities needed is becoming gradually more challenging. It is understood and observed that rain patterns have been abnormal in recent years but the other environmental factors negatively affecting crops are far less noticeable. As most know, crops need water, sunlight, and soil to grow, and healthy crops make healthy people. Yet in reality the equation is far more complex than that. Some crops can easily be over watered or receive too much direct sunlight, and air quality affects their growth as well. However, the most important element in crop production is actually the soil. Soil is not only what holds and supports the plants, it is also what provides nutrients to the crops. Healthy soil can retain far more water than thin dusty soil, combating the issue of inconsistent watering. Healthy soil also helps to protect the plants from illness, bacteria, and underground pests. The most important aspect of healthy soil is that it gives nutrients and vitamins to the plants we eat. Continuing to grow crops in the same plot of land season after season removes all the nutrients from the soil causing the crop yield to decrease and human health to suffer. With the changes in the environment, variability of rainfall, increase in annual temperature, and prevalence of harmful plastic derived chemicals, the best way to ensure crop health does not drastically decrease is to: improve the health of the soil. Soil health can be
drastically improved with the use of natural fertilizer, and natural fertilizer can easily be made with little to no cost by composting food waste.
The widespread lack of a thorough waste management system — especially in agricultural regions, causes food waste to pile up near common living spaces or even spaces where food is prepared. This negatively affects human health in several ways. This form of waste management emits a greenhouse gas called Methane that amplifies changes in weather patterns by changing the chemistry of the atmosphere at an unnatural speed. But more importantly for the community, food waste attracts a large number of insects. Cholera is a very common and severe illness in these areas, and it is largely spread by flies. Flies feed on both human waste and rotting food, so when these materials are close to fresh food, illness occurs more frequently. With better managed food waste illness would be less frequent and far less severe.

Common waste consists of fresh fruit and vegetable peels, cooked starchy food waste, and scraps of cow, chicken, goat, and fish. All these things attract vermin and insects, but they also are all organic materials that are high in nutrients. If these materials were to be property composted human health would improve from both the improved crop yield and the reduction of illness.

Composting is the process of using food scraps and other natural materials such as grass clippings and coconut husks to create a natural nutrient rich fertilizer. Composting takes attention and effort, but it is an extremely effective way to increase water retention in soil, crop production, and crop health. If the plastics were removed from these images, all the materials could be the start of a healthy nutrient rich fertilizer. Properly combining compostable materials
initiates a thermal reaction between the materials that causes them to break down while producing nutrients. The main things needed are airflow, warmth, moisture and a three to one ratio of ‘brown’ and ‘green’ ingredients. Direct sunlight can also increase the speed of the process. Brown ingredients refer to carbon rich materials such as dry leaves, sticks, and ash.

While green ingredients are nitrogen rich materials like food waste, manure, and fresh grass clippings. The reaction that causes composting to be successful is dependent on the interaction between carbon and nitrogen rich materials, so it is very important to pay attention to what you are putting into your compost. Composting can be done on a small scale in trash cans or buckets, but it is important to put small holes in whatever container you use so heat and air can flow through. It is also important to use a lid. Thin layers are best because the ‘brown’ and ‘green’ materials need to be touching. Whenever you have food waste put it in your compost container and cover with a ‘brown’ layer, then put on the lid. The smaller the food scraps are the faster the fertilizer will form, so tear and grind materials when able. It is important to keep the compost moist — but not wet– so you should only add water as needed. If the compost appears slimy or smelly add extra ‘brown’ materials or even some dirt. Mixing or stirring the layers every three or four days speeds up the process. If you are using a bucket you can simply roll it gently with the lid on. It is very important to make sure no plastic contaminates the process. Only the materials listed below should be incorporated.


If you would like to compost on a larger scale to suit your level of crop production and food waste, outdoor compost piles are easy to start and maintain. The simplest way to start an outdoor compost pile is to place a pole or branch in the ground and create layers of materials around it. The first layer should be of larger ‘brown’ materials like tree clippings and hay, then you can add a thin layer of food waste, and more ‘brown’ materials on top. You can collect the
food waste in any closed container, just be sure that no other unnatural trash contaminates it.

Several households can contribute their waste to the same pile. So, when you need to empty your jar of rotting food scraps, take it to the outdoor pile and create another layer. Whenever you add the ‘green’ ingredients add a ‘brown’ layer on top to ensure the reaction will occur. Covering the food waste with dry leaves and other materials also helps to prevent pests from disturbing the pile. When your pile has formed you can remove the pole in the center which the layers were formed around, this will allow heat and air to flow efficiently throughout the pile and it will increase the speed of the process. When the pile is first formed you should cover it with a tarp or rice sacks weighed down by a few rocks, this insures that it does not become too moist and it traps all the materials, forcing the reaction to occur. A few days after food waste has been added you can stir the pile to help the layers mix and breakdown. When your compost appears to be dark thick dirt the process is complete, and you can utilize the fertilizer wherever your crops are growing.
Continuing the process will gradually yet significantly improve your garden or field of crops. The more fertilizer added, the better your crops will be. Improving your soil improves your health, making plentiful and vitamin rich foods.

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