*Earthworm farming could be the answer*
For many, earthworms are just for use as baits for fishing and for burrowing our garden soils to improve aeration. For some, earthworms can be magical creatures that can play a tremendous role in our environment. In this report, our Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor Sifelani Tsiko (ST), speaks to Dr Ephrem Whingwiri (EW), head and founder of Zim Earthworm Farms about how earthworms can be utilised to address environmental, food insecurity, poverty and climate change problems.
*ST:* Worms are not affectionate creatures for many people, but for you, they have become exceptional creatures of value. What is your comment on this?
*EW:* I think that earthworms can change the fortunes of Zimbabwe forever. Zimbabwe generates about one million tonnes of biodegradable waste per annum which currently is a nuisance to local authorities who lack sufficient capacity to manage it. Most of the waste is disposed of at landfills, illegal dumpsites or is burnt yet 70 percent of Zimbabwean soils are sandy, prone to leaching, have low humus and are inherently infertile.
Major challenges in waste management include sewage streams due to manhole blockages and overflows, underground water contamination due to malfunctioning septic tanks, sprawling new settlements without water and sewage reticulation (with shallow wells close to septic tanks being the source of water for domestic use), uncollected garbage and illegal dump sites. Hope still remains for Zimbabwe in light of all these challenges highlighted above by simply utilising earthworm-based home-grown technologies developed by Zim Earthworm Farms (ZEF).
Earthworms are a possible backbone of a green revolution. They decompose organic waste into a bio-fertiliser called vermicompost (earthworm faeces or excreta) on the market in Zimbabwe.
It is potent enough to enable plants to produce nutritious food, without any chemical fertilisers or at reduced chemical fertiliser levels.
Because earthworms are rich in balanced protein with about 72 percent protein when dry, large quantities can be generated for animal feed creating employment.
*ST:* What made you love earthworms and see value in them?
*EW:* It was all started by a tender by EMA on the control of water hyacinth in Lake Chivero. I started in 2012 to research on how to compost the weed. Then God blessed me with the knowledge about what earthworms can do. I then spent two years conducting research of earthworms and the aquatic weeds. In 2014, I was already producing vermicompost and had designed a prototype recycled water flush toilet . The fertiliser was tested in a field trial. Students from MSU and HIT were hired to do the research.
The vermicompost biofertiliser was registered at the Department of Research and Specialist Services.
The pit latrine which my workers used had collapsed. I had to come up with an alternative solution. The prototype flushing toilet is what they have been using since 2014.
The water being flushed today is about four years in the system and has no smell and is clear. Research on improving sanitation continued and continues to this day.
*ST:* You specialise in earthworm technology in the management of sewage and solid waste management. Can you briefly tell us what this is all about?
*EW:* Our work is anchored on nature’s cyclic path with earthworms linking the components of the path.
The strategic philosophy is to manage a problem at its source before it grows too big and become unmanageable i.e., treat waste at source before it builds up. JBMS earthworm technologies allow for source management and treatment of sewage, wastewater and solid waste.
The technologies create value from waste and enable the installation of decentralised waste management systems which involve the participation of the generators of waste and the community.
Our solutions bring wastewater treatment and recycling close to the source so that benefits are realised at local level. Our Jati Decongester Sanitation System can be installed at homes causing sewage overflows or streams and permanently stop the sewage streams we see in high density suburbs.
*ST:* What are some of the major benefits of the sustainable utilisation of earthworms?
*EW:* Earthworms can be used in wastewater treatment to neutralise waste water pH, disinfect and treat wastewater. Research work by ZEF has shown that earthworms can effectively be used for treating sewage and industrial effluent. Dried earthworms have 72 percent balanced crude protein and can be used for animal feed.
Enzymes from earthworms are used to produce organic detergents and the use of earthworms make it possible to convert biodegradable solid waste to rich organic biofertiliser on-site thus eliminating the need for landfills, dumpsites and burning biodegradable waste.
In addition, earthworm extracts remove foul odour and can be used to remove foul odour enabling at source composting while earthworm powder is used to treat BP, diabetes, ulcers, fibroids and improve blood circulation. Extracts from earthworms are ingredients to anti-aging creams and face scrubs. Many European companies now manufactures organic detergents based on earthworms
*ST:* Can you briefly tell us about some of the successful ventures you have done using this earthworm technology?
*EW:* New developments driven by earthworm technology are unfolding in the treatment of waste water (sewage and industrial effluent) helping to clean, detoxify and deodorise otherwise dirty and smelly waste water. Our team comprising of engineers, earthworm technology specialists and technicians have packaged knowledge about what earthworms can do and developed a number of products. These include the Jati Decongester Sanitation System which treats wastewater and recycles it for reuse in flushing toilets and irrigating gardens. This technology has replaced the septic tank and also the Blair pit latrine. We have done installations in Borrowdale Brooke, Glen Lorne, New Caledonia and we are currently working on 11 houses in Stoneridge sponsored by MSF Doctors without Borders and nine houses in Beitbridge sponsored by EMA. We have commercially converted biodegradable waste into vermicompost, a biofertiliser for various clients such as Tobacco Research Board and other clients.
*ST:* What are some of the perceptions of the beneficiaries of this technology?
*EW:* Onsite wastewater treatment and recycling beneficiaries in Beitbridge, Glen Lorne, Stoneridge and Borrowdale Brooke are very excited by the benefits of excess non-potable water that can be used in garden irrigation and toilet flushing. Many farmers have come through with encouraging testimonies.
*ST:* Most rural areas, growth points, towns and cities are grappling to manage sewage and solid waste. What do you think needs to be done to harness your technology on a bigger scale?
*EW:* Local authorities should not accept to live with problems such as sewage overflows when we have proven technologies developed here in Zimbabwe which give permanent solutions to their challenges. They need to embrace new innovative and cost-effective technologies since they don’t have the working solutions. Local authorities need to seek funding through partnerships with donor communities, mining industries and business companies.
*ST:* What could be the role of the private sector, government and NGOs in promoting the earthworm technology?
*EW:* Information is power. A lot of people are suffering but practical and home-grown solutions exist here in Zimbabwe. There are big business opportunities for the private sector for adopting the earthworm technologies. Government can improve the lives of their citizens by investing in earthworm technologies.
*ST:* What do you think needs to be done to change perceptions about earthworm technology and the Government to see value in it?
*EW:* Spreading awareness and educating the decision makers on the valuable benefits the technologies have to offer. Decision makers and engineers in local government ministry and the local authorities must see existing working projects.
*ST:* Looking ahead into the future, how do you see this critical sector moving and growing in Zimbabwe, Africa and the world?
*EW:* Earthworms solutions are transformative. Embracing these innovations will mean no biodegradables will go to a landfill, communities do not have to live in sewage streams and domestic wastewater will be recycled at source, no underground water contamination and no reservoir pollution. The solutions are preventative with respect to water borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and so on. Our technologies will mean huge savings in water treatment cost, less chemical fertilisers shall need to be imported, and massive employment creation without much external investment.
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