Small but mighty, earthworms could save Egypt's soil
When Egyptian researchers, farmers and environmentalists look at earthworms, they don’t dwell on the creature’s viscous, tube-shaped and overall unappetizing appearance: What they see is nothing less than the solution to organic waste disposal and a source of first-rate compost.
It may not come as a surprise to read that Egypt has a major issue with solid waste management. The problem became overwhelming when the global hysteria surrounding the swine flu hit Egypt in 2010, and the Mubarak-led government decided to put down all the pigs in the Zabaleen neighborhoods. This small army of 300,000 animals was in charge of getting rid of most of Cairo’s organic municipal waste, and produced manure that was used to produce high-quality compost for farmers.
A few trials with other animals were conducted to see if a substitute for the pigs could be found, but in light of their failure, agricultural experts and environmentalists are now considering using the “red wiggler” — the most efficient composting worm — to feed on organic waste and produce excellent “vermicompost.”
Before the Aswan High Dam and the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, earthworms were plentiful in Egyptian land — feeding on organic waste, digging tunnels for aeration and digesting waste to create highly nutritious compost that would sustain the soil’s quality and permit better crop yields.
The High Dam’s interruption of the yearly flood marked the death of the highly beneficial layer of silt the Nile carried along. Deprived of fresh nutrients, soil became impoverished, and earthworms died. The few that can still be found today dwell in a soil containing no more than 3 percent nutrients; thus, the worms feed and compost very little.
A few years ago, Gina Wuppermann, an Autralian resident in Cairo, imported two kilos of red wigglers from Australia. This species of worm thrives on rotting vegetation, compost and manure, and the red wiggler can compost its own weight of waste every day. Wuppermann started discussions about the worms with current Minister of Agriculture Ayman Farid Abu Hadeed, who at the time was heading the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC).
Sara al-Sayed from the NGO Nawaya explained that “Abu Hadeed had the worms quarantined, because you cannot release a new species in the soil before making sure that they are not going to be a threat to the soil itself, or to other crops.”
At that time, Wuppermann approached the Central Laboratory for Agricultural Climate (CLAC), a division of the ARC, and started studying the red wiggler’s potential along with two researchers, Mohamed Saad Aly and Mohamed Abul-Soud.
CLAC is based in Dokki, where an entire area is dedicated to vermicompost and vermiculture (the breeding of worms). At its premises, fifteen five-meter-long basins are covered with a black plastic sheet to protect the worms from the sun.
Mohamed Saad Aly displays the worm basins at CLAC. Photo by Louise Sarant.
“We feed the worms with cow and horse manure, mixed with some agricultural waste and food scraps,” explains Aly, lifting the plastic cover and digging a shallow pit with his fingers to unearth the worms. He explains that it takes about a month for the worms in the basins to decompose their food. When the process is complete, the vermicompost is used to fertilize the research center’s adjacent crops.
A nearby air conditioned room is used to stock vermiculture bins, where the researchers breed worms, because Egypt does not have enough composting worms at this point to deal with organic waste on a farm scale.
Three years ago, the two researchers received an LE1 million grant from the Ministry of Scientific Research to fund their vermiculture and vermicomposting efforts, as well as to train families in the art of vermicomposting.
“Our vision is to introduce vermicompost bins in the kitchens of a handful of Egyptian families at first, and to provide them with long-term training where they will learn how to feed and take care of their worms in the best way,” Aly says.
Vermicompost bins at CLAC. Photo by Louise Sarant.
In addition to the free vermicompost bin, the families will also be given two tables lined with plastic for rooftop gardening purposes, along with some seeds.
“We want to create a closed cycle, whereby people get rid of their organic waste at the source and create a highly nutritious soil that they can use immediately to grow healthy, organic food from home,” he says.
The researchers, who are currently waiting for the second installment of the grant to move forward with the training phase, have already found 24 interested families to participate in the experiment.
Mamdouh Morsi is the first Egyptian to start a semi wide-scale vermicomposting and vermiculture business, located in Qanater, Qalyubiya Governorate.
“I own an orange farm in Qanater, but since I had no idea how the worms would react if I put them directly in the soil, or how they would affect the orange trees, I decided to breed them in my grandfather’s house, one kilometer away from the farm,” he says.
The large, downtrodden house from the 1950s is guarded by Haj Ahmed and his family, who became the worms’ caretakers. Morsi dug 20 ten-meter-long basins in the villa’s garden for both the common Egyptian worm and the red wigglers to dwell.
“The trick is in the bedding, which is even more important than the food the worms get,” he says, pointing out that he uses a mix of newspaper, leaves, cardboard and organic wastes.
When Haj Ahmed plants his plough in the humid, dark soil, myriads of worms appear — some tiny, others up to 10 centimeters long. Sara al-Sayed, also visiting the farm, grabs a handful of soil, smells it and exclaims: “It smells just like forests in Europe!”
In a tiny red-brick house adjacent to the villa, Morsi stores 40 plastic worm bins away from the scorching sun. “By next year, at the rate at which they reproduce, I should be able to have 1,000 bins that I will install in all of the rooms in the villa,” he says, showing us a tiny worm egg shaped like a miniature lemon.
Morsi explains that his passion for fishing led him to vermiculture, and eventually vermicomposting. “A kilo of worms for fishing costs LE150, much more than a kilo of meat, so I decided to breed some. At the beginning I didn’t know anything about vermicompost, or ‘black gold’,” he says.
Once his production increases, he will start selling the highly nutritious compost to a farm in Saqqara.
In Cairo, or more precisely in Qattamiya, lies Egypt’s biggest compost plant to date. It was created a decade ago by the Association for the Protection of the Environment, an NGO based in the Zabaleen neighborhood of Manshyiet Nasr, founded by Youssriya Sawiris. This compost plant used to recycle pig manure to produce compost, but since the pigs’ mass extermination, the plant has introduced red wigglers to create high-quality compost. In a few years’ time, when the population of composting worms is deemed sufficient, setting up other composting farm on this model to treat municipal waste would be a leap forward.
In Gharbiya lies the famous A.Fakhry and Co. aromatic and essential oil company, which produces raw material for export to the perfume industry. Around 150 plants, flowers, spices and trees grow in this farm, which on its own represents two-thirds of Egypt’s certified organic aromatic raw material. Three years ago, they received six small crates full of worms — red wrigglers and baladi worms — given to them by Wuppermann before she left Egypt, and they started introducing them gradually into the compost.
Amna Shawqat, who works for the aromatic company, explains that they don’t use the worms in the soil yet, because they need to breed them in larger quantities first. “But we feed them with a good mix of plants, flowers and leaves after distillation, scraps from leftover food and manure produced by the neighboring farm which breeds organic cattle,” she says.
At this point, vermicomposting is not a well-known technique in Egypt, but its huge potential in sorting the organic waste issue and providing Egyptian soil with high nutrient compost, and its small investment cost, should make it successful.