The demand for increased food production has put pressure on valuable resources like land, water, biodiversity, and minerals. This has resulted in more intensive agricultural practices, such as active farming and increased production of agricultural commodities
While increased food production is generally seen as positive, it has led to the accumulation of agricultural waste, including animal manure, crop waste, food processing waste, and pesticide residue. This waste is costly to collect, transport, and process for beneficial use, and its economic value is often less than the cost of doing so. The accumulation of agricultural waste has serious environmental consequences, such as water and air pollution, and it takes up valuable land resources.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 998 million tonnes of agricultural waste are produced worldwide every year, accounting for over 40% of the world’s total waste generation of two billion tonnes.
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Rhoda Dia, the project manager in charge of the food security project at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has stated that Nigeria’s palm oil production industry generates over 90 million tonnes of effluent (liquid waste) every year, while an estimated 19.5 million cows also produce a massive amount of waste.
Dia added that Africa’s largest rice producer generates 4.34 million tonnes of rice straw and 900 thousand tonnes of rice husk.
Dia also pointed out that Africa’s largest rice producer, Nigeria, generates 4.34 million tonnes of rice straw and 900 thousand tonnes of rice husk annually. With Nigeria’s growing population, she projects that the amount of agricultural waste generated in the country will triple in the coming decades, posing a serious threat to the economy if the potential of converting agricultural waste into energy and other commercially viable products is not realised.
Wealth potential of agro-waste management
The lack of awareness about proper waste treatment, the opportunities for converting biodegradable agricultural waste into valuable resources, and government incentives or public education campaigns, often leads farmers to dispose of farm waste in environmentally harmful ways, such as burning or abandoning it to decompose. This practice contributes to soil contamination, the release of disease-causing organisms, and the release of ozone-depleting gases, all of which have direct consequences for human health and environmental degradation.
Obiageli Umeugochukwu, a soil science expert and lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), emphasised the urgent need for governments at all levels to invest in agricultural waste management given the direct and significant impact of waste on human health, agriculture, the environment, and the economy. She noted that failure to address this issue would have far-reaching consequences for the country.
Umeugochukwu recommended that governments and players in the agriculture sector should consider shifting away from hydropower and petroleum fuels, and explore the potential of using agricultural waste as a source of energy and as a valuable resource for improving the food system.
The agriculture expert noted that agricultural waste materials can be repurposed to reduce environmental harm, improve soil fertility, and boost farm productivity through scientific methods such as recycling, treating wastewater for reuse, and bioenergy conversion. She stressed that these approaches are both feasible and beneficial for the environment and the economy
Umeugochukwu pointed out that Nigeria produces 4.34 million tonnes of rice straw and 900 thousand tonnes of rice husk annually, which could be used to generate 337.67 megawatts of electricity per year. She explained that the use of rice waste as a source of biofuel would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create new manufacturing jobs and income in rural areas, and improve the efficiency of the food supply chain.
Oyewole Okewole, the founder and team lead at Oakwall Agro-Industrial Consult and Services, opined that RTI (Research, Technology and Innovation) can be used to transform agricultural waste into economically valuable products. He stated that these innovations are essential for making the most of the country’s resources and reducing waste.”
According to Okewole, RTI has transformed agricultural byproducts that would have been considered waste a few decades ago into new products and solutions that increase the production of fruits and vegetables.
Okewole noted that during the rainy season in Nigeria’s tropical regions, producers are often overwhelmed by the high volume of harvested crops and do not have the resources to process and store their excess produce for the off-peak seasons. He also mentioned that many smallholder farmers lack the knowledge and resources to process and store their crops efficiently, leading to large amounts of waste.
On how producers and stakeholders in the agriculture sector can gain financial returns in this situation, he said; “There is a window of opportunity here. This is the time to invest in a researched area of focus for agro-commodities that are easily wasted within your area of locality and strategically buy the produce, sell off some, process and store the excess.”
Okewole explained that investing in inventory, such as storage and processing facilities, would initially require a financial investment, but the returns would be significant during the off-peak season when demand increases. He noted that this strategy would eliminate much of the waste currently experienced during the rainy season and increase income.
Okewole emphasized the need to educate farmers and others involved in agricultural production about the negative consequences of agricultural waste and the benefits of managing waste in a more sustainable manner. He suggested that more awareness should be raised about the ways in which agricultural waste can be harnessed for productive purposes.
Okewole also called for policies and regulations that support the recycling of agricultural waste. He noted that a more sustainable agricultural supply chain, infrastructure development, and stable markets would be essential for the success of initiatives that convert waste into economically valuable products.
Wale Karunwi, the managing director of Kalos Agro Homes Integrated Farms, explained that agricultural waste can be used to produce renewable energy. For example, he said that rice husk can be used to produce briquettes, a type of charcoal.
Briquettes, he explained, are environmentally safer than ordinary charcoal because the harmful gases are eliminated during the process of converting rice husk into briquettes. As a result, they do not produce smoke like ordinary charcoal.
“This technology is known globally, but we are just getting to know it in Nigeria, and it has become imperative because of the hazards inherent using charcoal and firewood. It is an emerging market and since I have been using it in my farm, we have been overwhelmed by people coming to us with their rice husks,” he noted.
According to Karunwi, rice husk and other agricultural waste can be converted into organic fertilizer rather than being discarded. He noted that the recycling of agricultural waste into valuable products not only helps the economic development of the agriculture sector, but also creates jobs and generates revenue through a chain of profitable activities.