From greenhouses to waste reuse in agriculture: A profile of Miriam Otoo

Dr. Otoo on a field visit to Niger

Often our passions emerge from our childhood and parent’s influence. Miriam Otoo spent much of her childhood in greenhouses in Kumasi, Ghana and Ibadan, Nigeria learning about agriculture from her agronomist father.

“Watching your father doing his scientific research on plant breeding inside greenhouses is not any child’s idea of a great weekend, but it did teach me to appreciate nature,” she quips. Promptly and with a warm smile “And it was one of the only ways I could spend some time with him.”

Miriam chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and today is a successful woman scientist in agricultural research. She joined the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in 2011 as a post-doctoral fellow and has been involved the research program on Resource Recovery and Reuse (RRR) ever since. She has been especially engaged in research targeting improved productivity of smallholder farmers, not only in Africa all over the developing world.

Miriam completed her doctoral research from Purdue University, Indiana, USA specializing in Agricultural Economics. She received several departmental scholarships and won the prestigious AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) Fellowship.

As a young African she has lived in many parts of the continent and witnessed poverty firsthand. This has fueled her passion to assist Africa to flourish through agriculture. “Agriculture is the economic backbone of Africa. My life experiences in many African countries helped me find my career path to assist Africa strengthen its backbone through science and economics,” says Miriam.

Waste reuse and food security

Miriam’s current research focuses on understanding the linkages between agriculture and sanitation to enhance food security via the analysis of innovative business models for the safe recovery and reuse of water, nutrients and energy from domestic waste streams. This process entails creating business opportunities for waste-based products such as Fortifer, a fertilizer pellet made out of fecal sludge.

“Humans generate millions of tons of waste every day. This waste is rich in water, nutrients and energy. But waste is not being managed in a way that permits us to derive value from its resources,” Miriam asserts. “Fortifer is an example of a new approach meant to implement viable solutions that could support livelihoods, enhance food security, support green economies and contribute to cost recovery in the sanitation chain”, she says.

Miriam adds that Fortifer’s business model not only benefits farmers but also new entrepreneurs engaged in the production and sale of the product, the laborers that collect the waste and also citizens who no longer have to face direct exposure to waste as a result of the production of Fortifer.

Miriam focuses her attention on analyzing the market, social, cultural implications and institutional policies and regulations for the use of such products made out of human waste, particularly for use in agriculture.  “In Tamale, Ghana, fecal sludge is already in use -albeit informally- as an organic fertilizer. Fortifer will therefore not be a completely alien product to Tamale but instead a better treated and probably much safer version of their usual fertilizer,” says Miriam.

“The idea is to test it in different cities of the world. We hope there will as great a demand as we are seeing in Tamale in other cities such as Hanoi, Bangalore, Lima and Kampala.” Miriam adds that she is responsible for the wide ranging economic research, from analyzing both input and output markets (i.e. farmers’ demand and their willingness to buy the product), combined with cultural or social perceptions that either negate or support their interest to buy Fortifer.

A young woman in science and agriculture

Being a young African woman scientist Miriam believes that every individual is judged by the work that he/she does. “I did both my graduate studies in the USA through scholarship schemes and although the field of Agricultural Economics is predominantly male, I have always been taken for what I proved to be as a student. And it has been great so far.” She also adds that new opportunities are rising for African women to pursue science careers and she urges them to do so.

Miriam joins the IWMI delegation to the Africa Agriculture Science Week scheduled to be held in Accra Ghana this year, an event she deems important and timely for the development of African agriculture. “AASW focuses on agricultural innovation, gender, business development, and all areas of agricultural research. This is an excellent platform that brings together valuable synergies of agricultural scientists, partners around the world and African policy makers. We should not be working in isolation from each other if we want to help Africa feed Africa,” she says.

Miriam will be presenting her work on July 16, 2.00pm at the IWMI and CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems Side Event Water for food security, wealth and a resilient environment from 1-4pm at the International Conference Center in Accra.

Blogpost by Miuru Jayaweera, a social reporter for AASW6.
Picture courtesy M. Otoo

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