Nicholas Mati, 48, can tell you how well your crop will grow by digging a few inches in the ground. He can also tell you whether that building or road that you are constructing will cave in, crack, flood or last, just by glancing at the type of soil that your construction is based on. Mr Mati, a soil scientist refers to soil as a living material that is as diverse as any other living organism.
Who is a soil scientist?
Soil scientists specialise in the study of soil. There are different studies of soil such as Soil Physics, Soil Chemistry, Soil Microorganisms, Soil Survey and Soil Fertility. I have a Master of Science in Agronomy and I specialised in fertilizer response. I am also looking forward to completing my PHD in a few months. For my undergraduate, I studied Agriculture.
Why the study of soil?
Soil is the only medium where you can grow crops, not to forget that we construct almost everything on it. Knowledge of soil has a great impact in the quality of crop and the yield that a farmer will realise.
It also determines the quality of a road or a building. In fact, the lack of soil knowledge has resulted to loss of life when buildings have caved or tarmac roads have cracked.
How is knowledge of soil beneficial?
It helps to understand soil classification because we have many different classes of soils. In central Kenya and some parts of Rift Valley, we have the Nitosols, a type of soil that is very good for crops such as tea, coffee and other agricultural plantations.
Understanding soil type will empower the farmer to know what type of crop to plant for best yield. Some crop diseases, such as fungi, some bacterial infections and Nematodes-a multicellular animal are also soil borne.
Knowledge of this would mean appropriate soil treatment instead of an umbrella spray of insecticides or application of fertilizer.
What does a soil scientist’s day look like?
Depending on where you are based in your knowledge application, a soil scientist’s day will largely consist of activities like soil analysis in the laboratory, knowledge transfers from research findings to the extension workers or consultancy assignments in line with the science.
I am a consultant on standards- good agricultural practices. Currently, my focus, with a group of other scientists is on global gaps for export farmers.
What are some challenges you face as a soil scientist?
Knowledge transfer is a huge challenge here in Kenya. We have a lot of publications and research findings that would make huge strides in food security and food safety, but there are no concrete systems or resources to interpret this technical knowledge to a language that farmers can understand. We do have extension officers, but they are few and far between.
I am happy to note that we now have a degree in Agricultural Extension being offered in one of our Universities. This will produce experts who are not necessarily scientists but have the in-depth knowledge of Agronomy, and can transfer the same to farmers and other consumers or end users.
Another challenge is that soil scientists are very few. There are no soil studies in primary or secondary schools, and most times Agriculture studies offer minimal soil knowledge.
This means that many people overlook the science behind soil. We have disasters that have happened and when deep analysis is done, soil is the culprit.
What do you check for when carrying out soil analysis?
It is a deep analysis, depending on what the scientist needs to find out. For example, we test for levels of nitrogen, phosphates, fertility levels and humus.
We also can test for heavy metals, what is called arsenic soil, which is a check towards food safety. Many times, food safety starts from the soil. Contaminated soil will result to a compromised food chain that would not pass a food safety checks. Farmers irrigating their crops from a river that also acts as a dumping site for effluent from industries means that the soil gets contaminated and that food; when it eventually lands on your plate is also contaminated.
Soil analysis will also help advice a building or road constructor on technicalities like how deep a foundation should be, to avoid collapsed or sinking buildings and roads.
We also advise on the best crops for farmers in areas prone to heavy rains as this affects the nutrients of the soil. In dry areas, for example like Northern Kenya, the soil does have nutrients yet plants do not grow because the soil lacks the ability to break those nutrients into soluble components for the plants to absorb.
What training does one need in order to become a soil scientist?
Since soil science is diverse, one needs to focus on all the sciences, namely Biology, Physics, Chemistry, plus they have to study Agriculture and Mathematics. Once at the university, they can then choose to specialise.
What career options are available for a soil scientist?
Careers for soil scientist range from advisory, consultancy to researchers, extension workers, data analysists and so forth. A soil scientist can work with the government, Universities and in private firms at different capacities.
What is your concluding remark about your career as a soil scientist?
A deliberate intervention is key in order to get the message of soil to farmers. A close collaboration between the government and the development agencies in the Agriculture sector is important so as to address issues of soil, which will guarantee a return on investment for farmers.
A discussion of soil will also manage food security and food safety concerns. All forms of media, especially our vernacular channels should strive to cascade the information of soil to the farmers and the general citizenry.