UP-UKZN study investigates likelihood of farmers choosing compost made of human poop

University of Pretoria (UP) researchers lent their expertise to a recent study led by the University of KwaZulu-Natal and found that rural farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are open to buying and using compost made from human sewage as long as they can be sure that it is safe, affordable and works as well as other products on the market. 

The researchers asked 341 farmers what influenced their choice of fertiliser or compost, and presented a compost made from human waste as a potential choice. 

Dr Simon Gwara of the University of KwaZulu-Natal led the study, which was co-authored by Dr Damien Jourdain of UP’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development. Dr Gwara called on UP researchers to assist with data analysis using a method called “choice experiments”. These experiments allow researchers to understand consumer choices based on how much they value specific characteristics of products, explains Dr Jourdain, an expert in choice experiments and choice modelling.

The research team looked into whether farmers were concerned about the packaging of human compost, whether or not it was fortified with additional nutrients, and investigated potential health and safety risks.

“We found that farmers cared more about fortification and certification of human compost,” Dr Gwara says. “Perceived health risks were a potential barrier to the use of compost in agriculture; therefore, certification would mitigate some of the safety concerns.”

Overall, the findings suggest that faecal sludge management businesses and other entrepreneurs within the waste value recovery chain should create human compost products that are more acceptable to farmers. For example, human waste can be co-composted with other organic waste to ensure that it is fortified with the proper nutrients and minerals. It could also be sold as pellets in packaging that resembles other commercial composts so that it doesn’t remind farmers of human waste. 

Clear safety certifications can also be placed on the products to put farmers’ minds at ease with regard to any real or perceived risks of using human poop as compost.

Dr Gwara had recognised the potential of the choice experiments approach for this study, and reached out to UP to collaborate on the design and analysis of the study after attending a seminar presented by Dr Jourdain at the University in 2018. UP’s Dr Thomas Lundhede, an extraordinary professor in environmental economics, was another co-author of the research. 

Dr Gwara was prompted to understand what consumers might value in human compost products by the realisation that such products could help address several critical socio-economic issues, including waste management, sanitation, agriculture and climate change mitigation.

This study is a first step towards creating human compost products that are more agreeable to farmers, and is an excellent example of how versatile and useful choice experiments are for market research, says Dr Jourdain.

Dr Jourdain and his colleagues at UP have been working with PhD students across South Africa since that 2018 seminar to build capacity in choice experiments for agricultural economics, alongside UP’s Department of Agriculture Economics, Extension and Rural Development, and the University’s Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa.

“Personally, this work is very important to me, and I hope to establish a community of practice in South Africa through these student networks and with other people doing work on choice experiments,” Dr Jourdain says.

He says choice experiments are used widely elsewhere in the world, but that they are only emerging in Africa. Some of his students are using choice experiments to study preferences around pasture insurance, illegal hunting and even rewilding animals in national parks. Many others are using choice experiments in health research.

“It’s quite versatile for very different settings to evaluate the diversity of preferences of different populations,” Dr Jourdain says.  

He cautions, however, that this approach is based on hypothetical choices, so the research must be carefully crafted to minimise bias in respondents’ preferences.

“In the case of human compost pellets, we are talking about a product that does not exist yet,” he says. “People may say they would buy it, but in practice, when the products arrive, they might not.”

Dr Jourdain says the next step for human compost market research might be to offer an actual test product at an auction where the real buying behaviour of consumers can be observed.

In the meantime, Dr Jourdain is looking forward to building more skills in choice experiments in South Africa and watching how young researchers like Dr Gwara successfully use the method in their work.

Dr Simon Gwara, Dr Damien Jourdain, Dr Thomas Lundhede, ScienceLink

August 24, 2023

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  • Dr Simon Gwara

    Dr Simon Gwara obtained a BSc and an MSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of Zimbabwe in 2007 and 2011 respectively.

    He started out as a research associate for the Socio-Economics Programme of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Southern Africa national office, conducting research in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and working on various projects for more than two years.

    Dr Gwara later joined the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics as a research associate. Prior to that, he worked as a credit officer at the biggest agricultural bank in Zimbabwe, Agribank, before briefly joining the USAID-funded Zimbabwe Agricultural Income and Employment Development

    (ZIM-AIED) programme as a credit officer for International Relief and Development.

    He has acquired research experience in crop-livestock intensification systems, agricultural technology adoption, agricultural innovation systems, and food and nutrition security analysis, especially within smallholder farming communities. His research interest is sustainability science, waste management, systems and complex thinking, transdisciplinary research, and choice modelling.

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  • Dr Damien Jourdain

    Dr Damien Jourdain obtained a BSc degree from the Ecole Natioanale Supérieure d’Agronomie de Montpellier at Montpellier University in France. He also holds a master’s degree and a PhD in Agricultural and Environmental Economics. Through the University of Montpellier, he passed the Habilitation (HRD) exam in Economics. HRD constitutes an accreditation to direct research, which is the highest university degree that can be awarded in France.

    Dr Jourdain has been doing research at the University of Pretoria (UP) since September 2017 as part of a collaboration with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). He is a permanent CIRAD researcher based at UP and investigates issues related to environmental economics in South Africa and more generally in Southern Africa. Dr Jourdain is based at UP’s Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa, which is located in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development.

    He is an active member of the PRECOS (Practices, Social Representations and Behaviours within Socio-Hydrosystems) team at CIRAD, which explores the various components of the dynamics of a socio-hydrosystem and their interactions. PRECOS is part of the UMR G-EAU in CIRAD. The G-EAU unit focuses on the adaptive management of water and aquatic environments, and their uses.

    His field of research contributes to the betterment of the world because it evaluates the economic value of ecosystem services so that this value is recognised by policymakers, and policies are adjusted to ensure their continuous provision in the future.

    One of his research highlights was leading a French-funded project on the measurement of social capital in rural communities in Zimbabwe.

    Another highlight was coordinating the socio-economic research within a European Union-funded project on sustainable intensification and climate smart agriculture in Zimbabwe. “We evaluated farmers preferences for sustainable agricultural technologies using choice experiments,” Dr Jourdain says.

    Dr Jourdain warns that natural resources are in danger. “There is an urgent need to change policies and to engage in a just transition towards more sustainable use of the resources we live on.”

    His advice to school learners and undergraduates who are interested in his field is to be persistent. “Becoming an expert in environmental economics should be considered as mastering a sport that requires several competencies: basic economics, econometrics and understanding environmental systems to be able to engage other disciplines.”

    In his spare time, he enjoys reading, especially history books.

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  • Professor Thomas Lundhede

    Professor Thomas Lundhede completed his undergraduate studies at the Royal Veterinarian and Agricultural University in Denmark. He has been affiliated with the University of Pretoria (UP) since 2017. At UP, he is part of the Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa (CEEPA), where he is an extraordinary professor in environmental economics. He has been an associate professor of environmental economics and natural resource management at the University of Copenhagen since May 2012.

    The CEEPA’s mission is to enhance the capacity of African researchers to conduct environmental economics and policy enquiry of relevance to African problems, and increase the awareness of environmental managers, economic managers and policymakers of the role of environmental economics in sustainable development.

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