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Smelling is believing March 9th, 2014 by

In Uganda, Emmanuel Ssemwaga was telling us about a self-cleaning pig sty. The manure just piles up and has no odor, thanks to indigenous micro organisms the farmer applies to it.

Emmanuel was trying to convince Paul and me to help him make a video on what he called the “organic pig sty”. The basic idea is to dig a pit and fill it with sawdust and leave the pig on the sawdust bedding without hardly ever having to clean it. But we weren’t buying it. “That pit will turn to a cesspool” we said. And when Emmanuel said the idea came out of Makerere University in 2011 we said “This technology is too young. Wait until farmers adapt it.”

But they had. The day after we met local farmer Caroline Nansamba who told us about a family that was using the new pig sty, “and the pigs are so clean they look like they just stepped out of the shower,” Caroline said.

The next day, Paul, Emmanuel and I, joined Caroline, and colleagues James and Noel, along with John Kateregga, a friend of Caroline’s who knows how to get to the farm.

We got off the bus in the town of Entebbe, near the capital of Kampala and also the site of the international airport. It is an example of what is now called peri-urban: half-town, half-countryside. The small houses are close together. There is little land to spare and people are trying to grow crops and gardens and raise animals, but at least they have easy access to market.

John introduced us to Noola Nalongo and her son Waswa, who stays with his mother and tend the pigs while her six other sons and daughters attend Makerere University. There is no shortage of ambition here.

Waswa showed us the pig pen, and there was no stench at all. The pigs looked fat and happy. Waswa turned over a lump of the rich, black soil in one of the six little pens. A fat earthworm slithered back into the clod of earth. This soil was alive, and made by people and pigs.

Paul took some of the compost into his hand. “Smell this,” he told me. I held it up to my nose and breathed in the rich musty scent. “It smells like forest soil,” Paul said.

Still skeptical, we looked for flaws. The floor of one pen had a puddle in it. Waswa turned the muck over with a hoe and the water seeped into the overturned compost.

The pig house was built with scrap lumber and recycled sheet metal. It was a poor family’s investment. The sty was divided into six pens.

Waswa explained that he built it by digging down four or five feet and filling the pit half full with sawdust. He then sprinkled a mix of sugar-rice-water on it, which he made himself. He adds a kilo of boiled rice and a kilo of sugar and a spoonful of salt to 20 liters of water. He leaves it ferment for a week, and it attracts and cultures local micro-organisms, like artisanal wine gathering wild yeast. Every week Waswa spreads five liters of the stuff on the floor of the pig pens.  Once a week he turns over the top layer of the muck in the pig pens. The muck looks almost like soil. The manure and urine mix with the absorbent sawdust and with the help of the native bacteria in his fermented brew, the whole bed of muck composts almost immediately. (For some reason it wasn’t very warm. It doesn’t burn the pigs).

Every three months Waswa digs out the muck. Neighboring farmers want it as fertilizer, so they buy sawdust, and bring up one bag of sawdust, which they trade to Waswa for three bags of compost.

Nothing smells as sweet as success. Noola and Waswa had never had pigs before. A friend loaned Noola 70,000 shillings to buy a sow, and the friend taught the family how to feed the pig. Waswa has since paid her back. When the sow had piglets Waswa sold them and bought another sow. Then they had 20 piglets which they raised and sold to pay tuition at the university.

Still, a technology isn’t ready until farmers start to copy it from other farmers. This was when John, our guide, said he was planning to make his own sawdust-pit-pig-house.

John and his wife and five kids and two cows live on a plot no larger than a suburban garden. John had already made a pig house of brick and cement when he met Noola and Waswa. John tore out the cement floor, hired a neighbor to dig a pit into the ground and will soon fill it with sawdust and put  a pig into it. “What if you didn’t have sawdust?” Paul asks.

“I would use grass,” John says. He plans to build a goat pen on top of the pig sty and soon add another pig house next to the first one. John is making the idea his own.

Pigs are semi-aquatic, river-bank animals by nature, designed to live on soft soil. They like to dig and often break their concrete floors to get their snouts into the earth below. A sawdust pad that mimics a forest floor allows a pig to be a pig.

Emmanuel and colleagues exchanged phone numbers with John and Waswa and plan to return to include this innovation in a video, to share the idea with other farmers. It’s one of the stranger innovations we have seen for a while, but shows that a bit of research and farmer ingenuity can pay off.

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