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27 November 2018

Solving the sandy soil puzzle

Congolese scientist Lydie-Stella Koutika wins the TWAS-Al-Kharafi Prize for work investigating how to enrich nutrient-poor soil in the face of growing poverty and climate change.

Lydie-Stella Koutika can recall, in her childhood in the Republic of the Congo, that farmers used to plant peanuts twice a year, once in March and once in October. But these days, getting a peanut yield in the area’s harsh soils is sometimes difficult because, with the changing climate, farmers have less water than they used to. Instead, they have to get the most they can out of the growing seasons available to them.

Koutika, a soil scientist from the Republic of the Congo, has been awarded the TWAS-Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi Prize for her work exploring introducing new plant species to make the sandy soil of her home country more rich to create better-quality growing seasons for both farms and forests. This work is important to Congolese people in both the farms and the cities they feed as they develop their nation after the Republic of the Congo Civil War which ended in 1999.

“It’s not only improving soil fertility and helping in climate mitigation by storing carbon in both soil and plants,” said Koutika of the purpose underlying her research, “but also providing charcoal and wood for the rural and urban population – 94% of homes use forest products as fuel energy as well as providing us with more wood and food for the population.”

The annual Al-Kharafi Prize, now in its third year, recognizes exceptional women scientists from scientifically and technologically lagging countries. In its first year it recognized Ghanaian researcher Marian Nkansah's advances in heavy-metal screening in Ghana, helping raise awareness of dangerous elements in food, drink and the environment. And in its second, the prize honoured Yemeni researcher Fathiah Zakham’s efforts to better track and address drug-resistant tuberculosis, a threat to her war-torn country.

The prize is named for 2004 TWAS Fellow Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi from Kuwait, who generously provides the USD4,000 award. Al-Kharafi, the former president of Kuwait University, was the first woman to head a major university in the Middle East. She is also a former TWAS vice president for the Arab Region.

Koutika received the award at the 28th TWAS General Meeting in Trieste, Italy, attended by more than 300 scientists, policy experts, journalists and others. The meeting, which lasts until Thursday, 29 November, features lectures by prominent researchers and policy experts, symposia on cutting-edge science, and ceremonies to honour some of the most accomplished scientists in the developing world.

“This prize is definitely going to help me,” said Koutika. “I’m very happy and glad because, once I’m able to finish this job, it will help me have the opportunities as well.”

Unfriendly earth for food-growers

This work is relevant not just in the Republic of the Congo (RoC) but two neighboring countries, Gabon to its west and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to its east, because this  unrich, highly sandy savanna soil extends to around 6 million hectares across all three countries. 

It contains less than 1% of organic matter, which is low, but typical of sandy soil. Koutika studies how the practice of planting fields of legumes – such as acacia trees, peanuts or beans – can help enrich this nutrient-poor soil. Legume fields tend to snatch up more nitrogen from the atmosphere than other plants and store carbon in soil and plantlife, making more of these important nutrients available to crops and nearby forestlands.

They have already begun widely using this practice in forests in the industrial plantations in the Republic of the Congo, though there is also a research project taking place in DRC has been dedicated in agroforestry that has seen some success. “They right now are using this kind of crop rotation in the DRC,” she explained, “when the legumes grow up the farmers prune it, and then add it to the soil, which reduces the amount of commercial fertilizer. It’s a matter of good practice.”

Her current research is comparing the effects of a seven-year mixed-species plantation of eucalypt and acacia rotation, conducted from December 2004 to 2011, to a second ongoing rotation from 2012 to next year, to see how well the benefits to the soil last. She also plans to do an analysis comparing the data from the first rotation to a five-year portion of the second rotation to better estimate the overall effect of this practice in the poor sandy soils of the area.

In the Republic of the Congo, the issue is urgent, not just for farmlands but for the richness of the earth in forest lands. About 94% of the homes in the RoC use natural wood and charcoal for energy, which is harming the local forestlands. So the demand for food and energy sources is growing. 

Furthermore, about 60% of the nation’s population of around 4 million are in Brazzaville, along the Congo River opposite DRC, and Pointe-Noire, the port city that touches the South Atlantic. Even before the war, the rural population was very low. Now it’s even lower, producing less food for hungry people both in the cities and the countryside.

The hope is that, after years of studying the effects of the practice, they will be able to “give the research back to the farmer” and benefit those who produce the food the big cities depend on.

“In agriculture we want to be inspired by what is happening in DRC,” she said. “It works very well there, where’s it’s more populated. But now things are getting very bad in my country and I think more people will need to be devoted to agriculture.”

About the TWAS-Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi Prize

Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi was the first woman ever to lead a university in the Middle East, serving as president of Kuwait University from 1993 to 2002. She was elected to TWAS in 2004 and served six years as a vice president of the Academy, with her term ending in 2016. The same year, she generously funded the new prize to acknowledge female scientists from science- and technology-lagging countries. As a chemist, Al-Kharafi's research has focused on the corrosion of metals, a crucial challenge for the oil industry, water treatment systems and other key sectors in Kuwait.

About TWAS

The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – supports sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from nearly 100 countries; 14 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through 35 years, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It is a programme unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

Sean Treacy

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