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Q&A: African, Chinese and European Scientists Collaborating to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Kenya’s Smallholder Farms

Zhu Yuhao (R) with his Post-doctoral supervisor Sonja Leitner at the ILRI Headquarters in Nairobi in this August 28, 2023 photo. The two are studying greenhouse gas emissions by livestock on smallholder farms in Kenya. [Photo/Njenga Hakeenah/CGSP]

A growing number of joint research projects between Chinese and African scientists on climate change is increasing collaboration, producing different data to help address challenges brought on by changing weather patterns.

At the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Zhu Yuhao, a Chinese post-doctoral student undertaking studies in soils and manure emissions has joined scientists from ILRI-member countries in Africa and Europe to investigate the contribution of livestock farming to greenhouse gas emissions.

Zhu, who comes from China’s northern Shandong province, is also researching how manure from domestic animals that chew cud like cattle and sheep increases nitrous oxide and methane in the air. The two gases are potent but carbon dioxide remains the major culprit, accounting for 66% of all the gases contributing to global warming.

As Zhu shuttles between the lab at ILRI headquarters and the organization’s research sample land lot sites to collect and analyze data across Kenya, his findings will contribute to creating a much-needed climate change research database benefitting farmers and policymakers in agriculture. Across the continent, scientific data is largely unavailable, and any new findings will help ILRI advise and improve any policies in the agricultural sector, especially in livestock farming.

Once Zhu and his team conclude their investigations, the outcomes will help advise a rollout process where Kenyan farmers adopt practices to reduce methane emissions and provide the ideal conditions for sustainable agricultural practices.

For a clearer picture of how this works, I spoke with Zhu on his interests in research in Sub-Saharan Africa, where he cited the similarities in challenges and opportunities with agricultural practices between Kenya and China.

For clarity and length, this Q&A has been lightly edited.

NJENGA HAKEENAH: There are several similarities and differences between smallholder agricultural practices in African countries and in China. Which good practices have worked in China that farmers can implement not only in Kenya but across various African countries?

ZHU YUHAO: Both Kenya and China are still developing countries and most of their agriculture is dominated by smallholder farmers. We are all suffering from climate change, but we may have different problems. In Kenya, you do not have enough agricultural inputs like fertilizer, but in China, inputs are too high. We are trying to optimize resources like land, water, and pesticide use through technology. 

This optimization can work in Kenya and in Africa given that both the government and farmers have noticed that we need to take care of the environment. In China, with the government’s guidance and the farmers’ perceptions changing, they have already started to reduce the fertilizer inputs, which are often excessive, and they are taking more care of the farmlands.

Here, the farmers have also noticed that climate is the basis for their productivity and so they started to use manure to improve soil quality while also reducing greenhouse gases from their farming activities.

NJENGA: Your project entails studying how much greenhouse gases farm animals and the soils produce and also how to practically reduce these emissions. How does this happen, exactly?

YUHAO: What I am looking at here for example is how to use animal waste to produce biogas. The byproduct is manure that has reduced levels of nitrous oxide and methane which happens during storage. We then use this waste as organic fertilizer (the bio-slurry). 

In the fields, we are testing how different practices increase or decrease the gases emitted by the soil. We collect gas samples from the different land lots using special equipment and then test them in the lab. The data we collect then tells us if the gases are in the normal range or if there are discrepancies. From this, we can then tell how each agricultural practice contributes to the increase or decrease of greenhouse gases.

NJENGA: In this collaboration between scientists, what are the skills and technologies from China that can work for Kenya? 

YUHAO: Like the many other things on trial in China, the biodigester technology was introduced to Chinese farmers as they were mainly using charcoal and crop biomass like maize stalks to cook their food and provide heating. But because using charcoal and crop waste causes a lot of air pollution, China introduced biogas to the farmers. To make it work, the government gave subsidies to encourage uptake.

Also, instead of using crop waste as fuel, farmers started using it as animal forage. In addition, they started returning crop waste to the farmlands to fertilize the soil, which benefits the ground and the climate. In all, there are some successes and failures with this move but across Kenya and in China, we can keep learning from each other.

Again, the Chinese government is trying to persuade farmers to start using more manure and reduce the usage of chemical fertilizers. The manure is used to substitute part of the chemical fertilizer. 

In Kenya, we lack synthetic fertilizer inputs and suffer from low yields yet there are so many animals and a lot of animal waste. At ILRI, we’re demonstrating that animal waste is usable like fertilizer after composting or after doing some treatment (such as biogas digestion). This increases crop yields while producing biogas which reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which is good for the environment. 

NJENGA: How important is indigenous and traditional knowledge when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change?

YUHAO: China is a big country but the cropland is limited, which pushes people to try and increase agricultural productivity for maximum benefit. The older generation knew the best time to start planting, fertilizing, or weeding their crops. But then, the weather patterns were a lot more predictable than they are now. 

To cope now, we have to understand the climate predictions first, which is possible through collaborations like we are doing here at ILRI. This is what will enable us to better understand climate patterns to help with precision inputs similar to what is happening in China.

NJENGA: How important are the early warning systems and what can Kenya and other African countries adopt from China to make them a reliable source of predicting how the weather changes, which determines productivity or even times to harvest?

YUHAO: China is very well equipped in terms of early warning systems. Elsewhere in Europe, countries like Germany install many meteorology stations, which allows the accurate collection of weather data. While this may not be possible for countries like Kenya in the short term, it may be good for the government to start prioritizing weather data collection for better monitoring.

Weather information is important for the farming systems since it helps determine the best time for farmers to harvest or plant or even wait before engaging in any farm work. Better prediction enables farmers to be more productive and avoid losses on their farms in terms of livestock deaths or lost harvest.

Present during the interview was Yuhao’s supervisor Sonja Leitner, the soil and manure nutrient cycling scientist at ILRI. She added that to make it possible for better data collection, ILRI is contributing data to the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO), which is developing a vast network of weather stations across the continent.

The pan-African network seeks to install one weather station every 500 kilometers and the data generated will be fed into a centralized network which will harmonize generation and collection of the weather patterns needed to improve climate modeling in African countries. 

Sonja said that in addition to China, they have Argentina and Colombia in a South-to-South partnership to learn from each other and mitigate the effects of climate change.

She added that it is absolutely essential for Africa to have a seat on the table and to be included in these global climate change discussions because most of the attention is focused on developed countries, whereas the situation in many African countries is not well represented.

Zhu Yuhao is a post-doctoral fellow after completing his Ph.D. in Bio-Geo-Chemical Processes at ILRI jointly with the KIT-IFU climate research institute and University of Freiburg in Germany

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