From waste to fertilizer: IDRC awardee closing the nutrient gap in Ghana's soils

August 25, 2014
Eric Smith
Where are they now?

Research carried out by IDRC awardee Noah Adamtey has helped Accra, Ghana’s capital, solve two disparate problems: environmental pollution from uncollected garbage and poor soil fertility.

In Accra, the municipal waste management system collects only 67% of the city’s total waste. This poses a significant public health hazard, particularly from human and animal wastes and rotting organic matter such as spoiled fruit and vegetables. Where garbage is collected, most organic waste remains in municipal landfills, generating noxious smells, polluting groundwater, and producing greenhouse gases. The problem is compounded by a rapidly growing population.

At the same time, agricultural production is declining in farming areas around the city because of the overexploitation of already poor soils to feed the burgeoning population.

A man with a dual mission

Agronomist Noah Adamtey has made it his mission to solve these problems. Adamtey received a 2005 Agropolis Award for Research on Urban Agriculture from IDRC to complete his PhD at the University of Ghana. His research focused on solving waste management and soil nutrient problems by producing high-quality, nutrient-rich compost in cities for use in urban and peri-urban farms. Composting is a low-cost means of returning organic matter and macro- and micro-nutrients to soils to improve fertility.

The problem, Adamtey explains, is Africa’s low soil fertility. "Most of the soils in Africa do not respond to conventional fertilizers because of their relatively low organic matter content," he says. "Until we improve the organic content, using only chemical fertilizers cannot help sustain crop production, achieve food security, and alleviate the poverty of most small-scale farmers in Africa."

Adamtey advocates urban composting as a way to recycle organic waste and return it to the fields. Closing the nutrient-cycle loop in this way can provide employment opportunities for waste management companies, unemployed youth in agriculture, and the urban and peri-urban poor in agribusiness. It can also create jobs through on-farm microfinance enterprises. This systemic approach can reduce poverty while improving soils and reducing urban pollution.

Noah Adamtey training youth in waste management

From research to action

When Adamtey completed his doctoral thesis in 2010, Ghana lacked a company or government institution that could provide research, policy advice, and training on the recycling and re-use of organic waste matter. Adamtey set out to solve this problem by promoting collaboration between Ghana’s Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI), NGOs, and international funders. His advocacy and determination led to the creation of a new government institute within BNARI, the Soil and Environment Centre.

The centre, the first of its kind in Ghana, promotes high quality research to develop standards and guidelines for the use of organic fertilizer. Its research is now being used by private waste management companies, researchers, NGOs, and international organizations to improve municipal organic waste collection and composting. The Soil and Environment Centre also acts as a training facility for the next generation of Ghanaian researchers, providing placements and training to graduate and undergraduate students working in soil, agronomy, and environmental science.

Educating youth in waste management

ADr. Adamtey in a field fertilized with organic compost in Kenya. damtey is now Senior Scientific Officer and Project Coordinator at the Department of International Cooperation of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland. There, he coordinates long-term systems comparison trials in Kenya. He also leads the "Insect-based feed and fertilizer production via waste transformation for small-holders in Ghana" project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Adamtey’s work takes him regularly to Kenya and Ghana where, in addition to conducting research, he trains farmers and waste managers to produce high-quality, nutrient-rich, and pathogen-free compost. A special focus is to educate unemployed youth in waste management and agriculture to empower them to create or grow business for themselves and for others, or to find work in Ghana’s now-burgeoning organic compost industry.

Noah Adamtey (right) holds a PhD in Environmental Science from the University of Ghana, which was completed in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute and the Swiss Federal Research Institute of Environmental Science and Technology. His doctoral thesis was sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation through the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, the North-South Fellowship, and IDRC.

Learn more:

  • From unwelcome waste to worthwhile fertiliser
  • Visit Adamtey's profile at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture for more on his work and recent publications
  • Fellowships and Awards page

This article is part of the series Where are they now? that highlights the work of former IDRC award recipients:

Eric Smith is an IDRC Professional Development Award recipient and writer based in Ottawa.