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Urea application - making a deeper impact

Urea briquettes are inserted at regular intervals (IFDC)
Urea briquettes are inserted at regular intervals

Walking barefoot in calf-deep water, a Bangladeshi farmer broadcasts small, white urea granules from a wicker basket among her emerging rice crop. In doing so, she is following a tried and trusted method for applying fertiliser in lowland rice. However, it is estimated that two out of every three bags of urea broadcast in this way are lost to the crop, disappearing upwards as greenhouse gas, downwards as pollutant in groundwater, or washed away in run-off. In contrast in the last three years, over 2 million Bangladeshi rice farmers have abandoned the broadcasting of fertiliser in favour of urea deep placement (UDP), a technique that has increased their yields while reducing their fertiliser costs.

With UDP, granular urea is moulded into small (1-3 gram) 'supergranules' or briquettes. Shortly after a rice crop has been transplanted, the urea briquettes are inserted at regular intervals in the centre of four hills of seedlings at a depth of 7-10 cm. Placing the briquettes directly into the plant root zone reduces nitrogen losses by 40 per cent compared to broadcasting, allowing for a similar reduction in the amount and cost of fertiliser applied. The deep placed urea becomes a 'food store' for the plants, ready to be absorbed when needed, and bringing an increase in yields of at least 25 per cent above a conventionally fertilised crop.

Compared to broadcasting, UDP would seem both time-consuming and laborious, especially because, so far, most farmers have been inserting the fertiliser briquettes literally by hand. But unlike broadcasting, applying the fertiliser only needs to be done once in a season, and farmers have also remarked that their crops need less weeding, the placement regime favouring the rice plants at the expense of weeds.

UDP magic - more for less

Usharani Goswami, a widow who lost more than half her family's land when her husband died, was trained in 2008 under a UDP expansion project implemented by the Bangladesh Department of Agricultural Extension, with assistance from international fertiliser organisation, IFDC. In her first season, she harvested an extra 600 kg of rice from her half hectare plot despite using 70 kg less urea. In the next season, she repeated the success, inspiring many others in her village to adopt the approach. "This magic technology has changed my life," she says. "I now have the means to live much better tomorrow."

Many briquette-making machines are owned by female entrepreneurs (IFDC)
Many briquette-making machines are owned by female entrepreneurs

Since 2007, 6,000 extension workers and nearly 2 million farmers across 160 districts of Bangladesh have been trained in UDP. According to IFDC, per farm income among those trained has increased by an average of US$116 per year, and the country has saved an estimated US$21 million through more efficient fertiliser use. Training and supporting Bangladeshi manufacturers to produce and distribute the briquette-making machines has been essential to the successful adoption process. There are now some 2,500 machines in use, many of them owned by female entrepreneurs, who run small businesses making and selling the briquettes.

From Asia to Africa

While technologically simple and very effective, the labour demands of UDP have proved a constraint to adoption among African rice farmers. In Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, rice is traditionally transplanted randomly, so changing the system of transplanting as well as fertiliser application has proved a double challenge. But according to Bidjokozo Fofana, IFDC's coordinator for UDP in sub-Saharan Africa, several local solutions have been developed. Farmers in Niger and Senegal, for example, have established a system of shared labour, working together on their fields in turn, while in Mali, small teams of young people have begun to hire themselves out as specialist UDP applicators.

In the longer term, Fofana believes that a technical solution will be needed to make the method less strenuous and time consuming. Some manual applicators have already been developed in Burkina Faso, and in time a mechanised solution may be available. A mechanical applicator built by the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute is currently being used by Bangladeshi farmers through the IFDC implemented ILSAFARM* project, which is supporting families whose land and crops were destroyed by Cyclone Sidr in 2007.

IFDC estimate that 20,000 farmers are keen to adopt the technology in West Africa (IFDC)
IFDC estimate that 20,000 farmers are keen to adopt the technology in West Africa

Making such Bangladeshi expertise available to African entrepreneurs is part of IFDC's plan to bring UDP to African farmers. Four study tours to Bangladesh have already taken place, and Kenya's Athi River Mining Company recently ordered two briquette-making machines, following a visit to Bangladesh by Kenyan government officials.

Such private sector involvement will be key to UDP uptake in Africa, says Fofana. Following 30 training workshops and 60 field visits in 2009, attended by farmer representatives, scientists, input suppliers and extension agents, he estimates there are at least 20,000 farmers now keen to adopt the technology in West Africa alone. Many of these are eager to extend the technology to cash crops, particularly tomato and onion, which are often cropped in rotation with irrigated rice.

However, the next challenge, he says, will be to meet the increasing demand for the briquettes and stimulate the emergence of a local supply chain, through the production of the machines to make them and the tools to apply them.

* Improved Livelihood for Sidr-Affected Rice Farmers project, funded by USAID

Date published: November 2010


Have your say

Abdul - This project was implemented by the Bangladesh Depar... (posted by: New Agriculturist)

i also used the usg-udp technology in my rice field in kebbi... (posted by: bellomuhammed jega)

In Bangladesh use of USG is increasing. But due to lack of ... (posted by: Dr Md Abdul Wohab)


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