Friday, November 6, 2009

Liquid Gold

One of my investment banker friends wrote to me musing how a poor country like Mali could escape its current stagnation; “Africa will need to diversify its economy away from commodities and raw materials into manufactured products if it has any hope of prospering”, he said, and when it comes to advancing from a subsistence agriculture economy to industrialization, “the bottom line is capital investment.” My friend saw the problem of African poverty in terms of underperforming GDP, a lack of final goods sold at market for currency to be saved in banks to accumulate with compound interest and re-invested so that capital can regenerate and expand unto itself. His view from Manhattan was fairly typical of anyone who makes their living in the trade of credits and debts, who views economic development in terms of developing a monetary economy and a self-contained industry of finance.

However, here in the muddy village of Sanadougou, most economic activity occurs in village without currency ever changing hands. Here the bulk of the population spends most of their labor planting and harvesting millet and rice and corn for their own family’s consumption. When the farming season is done, men spend the next largest chunk of their time building and rebuilding their own homes and granaries with mud and rocks and sticks that they find out in the fields. Women toil day in and day out drawing water and cooking and cleaning and taking care of their many, many children. Gross Domestic Product is such a grossly inadequate means of measuring economic development in this economy, for the food and housing and family networks which make up the bulk of the people’s tangible wealth are never sold as final goods on any marketplace.

The work done by Malian villagers that does count towards the monetary economy is decidedly secondary to food production, house construction and child rearing. In the relatively fertile Sikasso and the southern portions of Ségou, Koulikoro and Kayes provinces, surplus fields are allocated to farming cotton as a cash crop to be sold to the textile mills. In villages like Sanadougou, farmers produce such an excess of peanuts that they can sell them to urban populations who cook tigadegana. During rainy season women also gather shea nuts to cook a butter which is used to make soap and moisturizing cream. And of course all families raise some combination of cows, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea hens or rabbits for meat – only on holidays or weddings could most people ever justify slaughtering an entire goat, so villagers raise livestock mostly to sell to urban butchers. The money these villagers earn in exchange for these cash crops is what pays for their tea, sugar and gasoline. Altogether, the majority of such basic commerce is not transacted between villagers, for it consists of producing raw materials for the consumption of the urban merchant class or for manufacturing into finished goods by multinational corporations.

The most significant cash business in the traditional village economy which stays in the village for local consumption is the tilling of vegetable gardens. Most families have a small plot in their concession fenced in with sticks where they keep a papaya tree, a banana tree or two, and during rainy and cold seasons they can raise an annual patch of onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, sweet potatoes, yams or manioc. People tend to specialize in one or two crops and sell most of their output from garden season at market, but since tomatoes could never last the 57-kilometer motorcycle ride to the nearest city let alone pay for the cost of the gasoline, perishable produce can only be sold to other villagers. Fruits and vegetables are just about the only cash crops which are consumed in village and therefore insulated from the vicissitudes of global commodity prices and the distortion of First World subsidies. And thus in rural villages the most sustainable economic development takes the form of building gardens and improving their yields. Not only do improved garden yields increase monetary income, but since those yields are consumed in village they increase the population's intake of Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, etc. An investment in gardens is an investment in economic development and public health.

The World Bank and USAID and NGOs get this quite well. The Western bureaucracies of Third World development love investing in vegetable gardens because not only does it beget economic activity that can be measured by capital-centric indicators like GDP, but building vegetable gardens sounds less like impersonal business and more like good ol’ American humanitarianism.

Unfortunately, the Humanitarian-Industrial Complex understands the value of vegetable gardening only so much as it can be conducted from the confines of their air-conditioned offices in Bamako. If the only tool in in your tool belt is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail - and at times it seems as though the only tool at their disposal is a big wad of capital that can only be spent on high-tech contractors also based out of the capitol city. So they buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of hardware, pile into SUVs and swoop into villages and construct elaborate irrigation pump systems and build long chain-link fences for the Malians to plant gigantic community gardens.
But they never stay long enough to teach the people how to maintain the pumps – or they try as best as they can in French to a community that speaks only Bambara. So the pumps inevitably fall apart and no one can fix them and the “beneficiaries” of this big agricultural development projects can benefit themselves in no perceivable way other than dismantling the LEED-certified, solar-powered irrigation pumps and selling the parts as scrap metal. The professional vegetable gardening consultants designed their entire plan on the premise of a functioning irrigation pump, so they didn’t bother investing in quaint technologies like wells and pulleys, so even manual irrigation of this gigantic community garden is now impossible. With no irrigation system this vast plot becomes agriculturally useless, so the villagers pull up all the fence posts and use them to make fences around their own private gardens that they can water by hand. And thus the financial largesse of taxpayers and well-minded donors is all but wasted in a gargantuan orgy of cadeau give-aways and outright theft which does little more than enrich the most enterprising of bandits, discredits any future development efforts, and saps the motivation for truly impoverished people to do anything more than sit on their butts watching Akon music videos on their iPhones and wait for the next SUV full of white people handing out presents.

What the Humanitarian-Industrial Complex doesn’t seem to grasp is that if there is ever going to be sustainable economic growth on the village level, it has to be done without massive infusions of Western capital; in fact, if an economic development project requires the investment of foreign capital, it is going to end once the money dries up and is therefore almost certainly unsustainable in the long run. One guy with a cousin who works high up in the national bank might somehow be able to land enough cash to buy a tractor, but mechanized farming equipment is still much too expensive to serve any foreseeable benefit to the masses with no savings, no landed property to secure vast sums of credit and no connections to defy the natural laws of capitalism. The only way that truly sustainable economic growth is going to occur on the village level is if Malians adopt methods of augmenting their own gardens’ yields with technologies so cheap that they are practically if not one hundred percent free, simple technologies that they can assemble themselves, technologies that are literally too small to fail.

Often when I am walking through my village’s filthy, disgusting, sewage-filled streets, I think of how "underdevelopment" is just a fancy way of saying that resources aren’t being utilized adequately. But this isn’t South Africa or the Congo; there aren’t any valuable mineral resources underneath Sanadougou’s meager soils and sandstone. There really isn’t much to be employed here besides sand, dirt, mud, crumbly rocks and sunlight. Hell, this economy is suffering because water is scarce…

I also think of the profound dilemmas of sustainable development while I’m micturating, stircumating and taking bucket baths in my nyegen. I wonder what of economic value there could possibly be here that Malians aren’t already capitalizing upon…

After such profound thinking sessions, one of the first things I see when I exit my nyegen is my soak pit – still purposefully unfinished – and one of my four papaya trees. They have become such fixtures of my everyday life that I don’t really give them much thought. But after a while I started to notice something…

Way back in November of 2008 after the late James Brown I's inspirational urination and my digging of Sanadougou’s first ever soak pit, the adjacent papaya tree wasn’t much to sneeze at. It was a wimpy, pathetic looking thing.

But a year later, after 12 months of my peeing and bathing and washing all my urine away into that soak pit, something breathtaking has occurred – that wimpy-looking papaya has blossomed into the most prolific fruit tree in my entire garden!

It is the most magnificent papaya tree in all of Sanadougou!

It is full with more than 30 football-sized fruits!

When I’m toiling away in my garden, the neighbors walk by and marvel at the papaya tree and wonder how it is that I make it bloom so. They assume that I went to the city and bought sacks of “Tubabu fertilizer”, because it is well-known in this country teeming with livestock manure that white people are known to spend exorbitant amounts of money on imported, factory-produced chemicals to fertilize their gardens.

“Well, I water it just the same as the other papaya trees, and I don’t feed it with any more cow poop than the other papayas. The only difference that could explain this one papaya’s great fruits is the fact that it is planted right next to my soak pit, so all of the sewage from my nyegen just happens to flow underground directly towards the papaya’s tap roots. It must be the economical reuse of my own wastewater that is reaping Allah’s blessings upon my garden!”

“Your papayas are dirty!” some neighbors say “Do not eat them!”

Au contraire, my nyegen-fueled fruit is perfectly safe and perfectly delicious! There are few things more rewarding than slurping the flesh of a juicy ripe papaya and knowing that the fruit which I am eating was fertilized with my very own urine.

Out of all seriousness, the use of human urine as fertilizer is a wonderfully efficient and absolutely cheap means of increasing the yields of most garden crops. Many individuals might have religious scruples about fertilizing food for human consumption with human waste, many more might be repelled by the “yuck” factor because it almost sounds like humans are directly consuming their own sewage and all of the pathogens associated with it. But that’s not the case – only intermediary plants are consuming the valuable nutrients which urine contains, so these nutrients are simply being recycled. When you think about it, there really isn’t any substantive difference between using human waste and the waste of other animals as fertilizer – there are minor variations in the chemical content of the excreta of different species and especially depending on their own food consumption, but excess nitrogen passed through homo sapiens is no different than that passed through a cow or a sheep.

The most significant matter to consider when choosing between fertilizers is the N-P-K ratio: the relative proportions between nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium contained in the mixture. The reason why chicken manure is such a more productive fertilizer than the manure of other farm animals is because chickens don’t separate solid and liquid waste through a urethra and rectum – birds dispose of it all at once in one N-P-K-rich smattering with one multipurpose cloacae. Compared to human feces, human liquid waste is remarkably richer in all three nutrients – especially nitrogen. In different proportions, the urine of all mammals is more nutrient rich than their feces. The only reason why animals feces are used exclusively for traditional fertilizer and not animal urine is that it is very easy to send a boy out with a bucket to collect cow poop days after the cows have grazed over a particular field – though to collect livestock urine would either require training those same cattle to pee in a bucket, or for that boy to wait underneath the bovine nether-regions in anticipation of those valuable showers of gold.

We humans, however, have over millions of years of evolution developed the ability to control our bodily functions with behaviors conducive to avoiding disease and enhancing food supplies. Not just agriculture but also sanitation is one of the hallmarks of an advanced civilization. The Bambara people have on their own initiative pieced together mud and sticks for the basic nyegen technology which contains fecal matter underground and disposes of liquid waste out into the village streets. My introduction of more sanitary concrete platforms and soak pits is a significant improvement of their pre-existing technology in so far as further reducing human exposure to dangerous pathogens; however, unless everyone in Sanadougou plants their gardens directly adjacent to their soak pits, even this sanitary infrastructure is a tremendous waste of valuable nutrients which could be used to improve the yields of their fruits and vegetables.

The next step in improving Minianka society's waste management practices is to promote an appropriate technology which renders human urine into a usable, portable fertilizer that can easily be transported to the nearest garden. Merely walking out to the cabbage patch and taking a whiz doesn’t suffice because undiluted urine is so acidic that it is harmful to most plants, and moreover, peeing all over cabbage significantly reduces its desirability to potential customers at market.

I invested 4,500 CFA (~$9) worth of plastic and rubber sold in Sanadougou’s weekly market and made a simple contraption which changes the whole equation. I took a 20-liter plastic gasoline drum and spent a week cleaning and treating it extensively so that it is so antiseptic that I could store drinking water inside it. I filled the drum with 4 liters of water and marked off the water line so that I could know when it was 1/5 full. Then I took a plastic funnel and fastened it to the drum’s opening with sliced-up motorcycle tire inner tubes. With this, I could now pee into this plastic drum and store it with ease.

However, my urine storage tank was still incomplete. What makes urine fertilizer so effective is its rich nitrogen content, but if urine is exposed to the air then most of the nitrogen will escape in gaseous form. So I took five sturdy plastic bags, placed them inside one another and filled the inner-most bag with water so that they would seal the opening of the funnel.

Now when I have to go #1, I just simply aim for this funnel instead of the ground-level aperture of my nyegen. It is no extra hassle – if anything, it’s more convenient because there is less of a risk of splash-back for those of us men with superb aim. Though do not think that urine fertilizer is a technology limited to those endowed with dexterous urine-aiming devices – numerous phallicly-challenged Peace Corps Volunteers have overcome their disadvantage by peeing into a cup and then pouring the contents down into their urine storage tank up to the 4-liter mark.

Then I fill the urine storage tank almost all the way to the 20-liter mark in order to fully dilute the urine so that its pH is acceptable to the plants in my garden. It is important to let this mixture sit for a good length of time so that the urine and water are evenly distributed. And then I use the nyegen like normal for the next three days until application.

The use of human urine as fertilizer is much less of a health risk than using untreated human feces, which can transmit giardia, dysentery, hookworm, roundworm, etc. if applied directly to garden crops and is therefore quite dangerous to the gardener and as well as those who consume their fruits or vegetable. Pure urine, on the other hand, is so acidic that bacteria cannot live very long in it; it is so sterile that in extreme situations where freshwater is inaccessible humans should drink their own urine. The only disease that one should really worry about transmitting via urine fertilizer is schistosomiasis, and for this reason after reaching the 4-liter mark I let my liquid gold sit for at least two if not three days before application. The logic behind this is that schistosomiasis is a disease transmitted by infected persons urinating in bodies of water where other people are bathing or swimming; if an infected person were to directly apply their urine fertilizer in, say, an extra-large banana furrow, the schistosomiasis cercariae could penetrate the skin of another gardener working in that banana furrow later that day. But if the water-borne parasites do not find another carrier within 48 hours of their initial urination into a body of water, they die. If I wait until the third day until applying, urine fertilizer is perfectly safe.

There must be a structured means of applying urine fertilizer as well. It must be applied directly to the soil as close to the roots as possible so as to avoid potential contamination of the edible fruits and vegetables, and so the acidic urine does not damage the plant itself. Directly after application, each recipient plant should be irrigated extensively to ensure that the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium percolate down into the soil. One should apply only modest amounts fairly evenly amongst all plants, and to alternate fertilization with many non-fertilized irrigations so as not to overload the soil.

This practice is good for most garden crops; I use it for my papayas, guavas, oranges, lemons, bananas, zucchini and butternut squash – all of which have grown tremendously since I began this practice. Urine fertilizer is especially effective on crops which respond to nitrogen levels such as lettuce and cabbage – though with vegetables which are usually eaten raw in salad one must be particularly careful to not splash any diluted pee on the plant itself. There are only a few crops that should not be applied with urine fertilizer, most obviously nitrogen-fixing plants like beans and peanuts, and also rice because paddies are usually flooded with water and those cultivating it would have to wade through potentially schistosomiasis-carrying urine.

The end result is that gardens fertilized with diluted urine can see dramatic multiplications in output. Finnish agricultural chemists found that tomatoes fed with urine fertilizer saw 4.2 times as much yield as the control samples, and calculated that the urine produced by one average adult in one year contains enough nutrients to increase a cabbage crop by 160 cabbages (141 pounds) more than a cabbage crop fertilized with standard commercial fertilizer. And the intensity of urine fertilization has profound effects as well; all of my papaya trees are fertilized with urine – but the one directly adjacent to my soak pit has such a reliable daily stream of nutrients that it has borne 6 times as many fruit (and much larger fruit) than those that have been only mildly fertilized.

The potential of urine fertilizer to jump-start Mali’s gardens and its stagnant village economy is enormous. If a small gardener here were to multiply their tomato yield 4-fold or their papaya yield 6-fold, if they grow an additional 160 heads of cabbage (141 pounds) in one gardening season, they could augment their family’s nutritional intake accordingly. And if they can’t consume an extra 160 heads of cabbage, well, let’s just say that that’s more cabbage than what is sold in Sanadougou’s market over the course of an entire year. Even if just a handful of gardeners in my village were to take urine fertilization to their own plots, it could significantly expand their yields, increase these farmers’ incomes, maybe even lower the price of fruits and vegetables to such an extent that they could become a more regular addition to Malians’ carbohydrate-based diet and improve the health of this entire malnourished society. And the practice of urine fertilization doesn’t require anyone to take out any loans, it doesn’t require some NGO to swoop in and build some overly complicated contraption – all that it requires is the purchase of $9 worth of plastic and rubber, the construction of a nifty little urine storage tank, and for gardeners to pee in it.

If that's not sustainable development on the organic village level, I don't know what is.

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