Boniface Massawe – Soil Science

Boniface Massawe – Soil Science

Summary: Boniface Massawe is an iAGRI-sponsored doctoral student within Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources. Boniface’s academic and professional background in soil science as well as land use planning eventually led him to the emerging field of predictive mapping based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS). His PhD research at Ohio State also utilizes GIS technology to create a crop sensibility model for rice production in Kilombero Valley.

Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.


Mapping Tanzania’s Agricultural Future: Using GIS technology to create Predictive Soil Fertility Maps to enhance Rice Production

On clear days in northern Tanzania, Mt. Kilimanjaro’s ice-capped peak and barren flanks that transition to green tropical forest dominate the vista for miles around. On the mountain’s slopes and throughout the northern highlands, coffee and banana plantations dominate the region’s agricultural production.

iAGRI-sponsored scholar and Ohio State University PhD student Boniface Massawe has fond recollections of growing up in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, working coffee and banana plantations to put himself through school.

“I can remember working in my uncle’s coffee plantation, picking berries and going to school. All those things make me remember my youth there,” recalls Boniface. “Coffee put most of us through school because that was a cash crop for the region. My father and grandfather were coffee farmers. Almost everybody in the region grows coffee or bananas. For us, the bananas were for food and the coffee for profit. You enjoy farming because it’s the way of life there.”

Boniface is researching soil mapping and GIS based land evaluation for rice production in the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania, Africa.

Boniface is researching soil mapping and GIS based land evaluation for rice production in the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania, Africa.

Another way of life for Boniface was school, where he excelled in biology and other science courses. When he was introduced to soil science through a secondary school course, Boniface enjoyed the subject so much that he thought he’d found his calling.

“I liked soil because that class made me realize how important it was for life,” says Boniface. Having practiced agriculture for so many years, the course made me think about how and why soils made some farmers do better than others. I came to see just how important soil was for agriculture.”

Following secondary school, Boniface took his interest in soil science to Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro, Tanzania. At SUA, Boniface elected to pursue a degree in agronomy. In addition to taking soil science classes, Boniface also took a number of survey and mapping courses, sparking an interest that would shape his future academic career.

Nearly a decade would pass after completing his bachelor’s, however, before Boniface got his chance to return to school. In the interim, he worked a series of jobs that encompassed virtually all of Tanzania’s agricultural sectors, from sales to foreign aid and development. In the summer of 2002, Boniface began his first job out of college as a farm manager for the Usa Limited/Manyata Coffee Estate, where he managed all aspects of the company’s maize and bean exports.

The two professors accompany Boniface into the field where they collect samples from soil pits.

The two professors accompany Boniface into the field where they collect samples from soil pits.

“I managed labor and made sure that we were conforming with strict protocols for export,” explains Boniface. “There are regulations restricting the type of herbicides and pesticides that can be used. I had to make sure that we were meeting productivity while adhering to the regulations. It was a good experience to learn how to manage people, seeing how much labor is needed for that type of project, what is required to meet contracts, learning what the international market requires, things like that.”

In 2003, Boniface took a position as an agronomist for Balton Tanzania Limited, a company that designed and sold agricultural inputs like irrigation systems. It was a departure from his export work and required a different skill set.

“I dealt with agricultural inputs and irrigation technology,” says Boniface. “We were marketing those products and offering technical assistance to customers. It involved traveling a lot, meeting farmers and visiting dealers who sold the products. I was still working with farmers but in a marketing relationship. I liked that more than management.”

Boniface gained exposure to another side of agriculture with his third job. As project officer for Farm Africa, an NGO that educates smallholder farmers on improved agricultural practices, Boniface gained valuable experience in the Producer Empowerment and Market Linkage Project.

“The NGO experience was something new. I’d gone from management, to sales, to an NGO. There I advised farmers on how to sell and where to sell their goods. The whole approach was different,” recalls Boniface.

Two experiences in particular during Boniface’s time with Farm Africa motivated him to pursue higher education as a means of advancing professionally.

“At the NGO, one of the things I did was work on a land use planning project,” says Boniface. “I would go to villages and see land conflicts between farmers and pastoralists. Our role was to facilitate the two sides meeting together and planning their land use. That project made me realize that there were not enough qualified people out there that could do the job. That’s when I thought that I should go to school to get those qualifications.”

Boniface analyzes a sample in a Sokoine University of Agriculture lab.

Boniface analyzes a sample in a Sokoine University of Agriculture lab.

Encounters with former college friends, all of whom had earned PhDs and secured desirable professional positions, also caused Boniface to consider further education. As he compared his accomplishments to theirs, he was motivated to catch up.

“When I was working for the NGO, I’d run into friends who had gotten their PhDs, and that got me thinking about going back to earn one myself. That’s when a friend told me that there were scholarships available. I thought that I should apply to some,” recalls Boniface.

While Boniface didn’t find a scholarship, he did find an alternative method of returning to school when he was hired as a tutorial assistant in SUA’s soils department. From his position on SUA’s staff, he pursued his master’s courtesy of the school’s continuing education benefit. After a year of teaching, Boniface entered SUA’s School of Land Use Management and Planning, a decision prompted by his experience at Farm Africa.

The soil samples will determine the quality of the soil.

The soil samples will determine the quality of the soil.

“I already knew that there were few qualified people in land management,” says Boniface. “At the same time, in that department, there was a land use management section that needed new people in it, so I went in that direction.”

Eventually, Boniface developed a thesis that utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map soils in hopes of predicting areas of Tanzania’s Lushoto district where bubonic plague might lay dormant.

“That study was GIS based, so I analyzed information with parameters set by geographic coordinates and then used GIS software to analyze that space. We know that rodents, and particularly their fleas, are plague vectors. Fleas are everywhere, including in the soils. I was trying to use mapping technology and soil surveys to determine if certain soils and land forms could serve as reservoirs where plague vectors could hide,” explained Boniface.

Boniface is hopeful that his research will aid in maximizing rice production in Tanzania.

Boniface is hopeful that his research will aid in maximizing rice production in Tanzania.

After completing his master’s Boniface wanted to continue working with GIS systems in a PhD program, but he needed funding. A friend told him about iAGRI, a USAID project which sponsors Tanzanian students as they pursue advanced degrees. Boniface was an ideal PhD candidate and was accepted in 2012 to study at Ohio State University’s School of Environmental and Natural Resources. Though he had no experience living abroad and knew nothing about Ohio, the state that would be his home for about three years, Boniface was excited for the opportunity.

“I was very happy, but I also realized that it would challenging,” recalls Boniface. “It was particularly challenging to tell my family that I would be away for three to four years. But we planned for life to go on in my absence. I was almost the sole supporter of the family and I’d be away. At the same time, you need to take great opportunities. They understood and have been very supportive.”

In addition to adapting to life apart from his family, Boniface had numerous other cultural, environmental and linguistic hurdles to surpass before he was fully adapted to student life abroad.

A Sokoine University lab technition oversees Boniface's work.

A Sokoine University lab technition oversees Boniface’s work.

“The first challenge has been weather,” states Boniface. “This year for example, we have had an extended winter season, and I’m not used to this prolonged cold. Another challenge was the language. It is not that we don’t understand English, it’s just that the way that Americans speak English is different. They speak much faster, so we have to get used to that. Finally, there’s the technology issue and the way that you’re expected to study. So much of the material is online. That took a lot of adjustment. There are some important social differences too. Back home, everyone knows each other and even if they don’t, they all talk to each other. Here, people are a little more closed and keep to themselves. These are things that make us feel isolated, but it is how people live here and we have to adapt.”

As Boniface became more comfortable as a graduate student at Ohio State, he also embarked on his postdoctoral coursework and the development of the research that he’d implement back in Tanzania. Sticking with GIS technology and mapping, he decided to develop a predictive map that would aid rice production in Tanzania’s Kilombero Valley.

“My research intends to develop a crop sensibility model for rice production in Kilombero Valley using GIS techniques,” explains Boniface. “I’m planning on getting inputs for the analysis from soil surveys. Soil surveys are very costly though, so we are trying to use new methods of getting soil info through digital soil mapping. We’ll combine that information with the socio-economic factors and then be able to come to conclusions regarding crop sensibility. In the end we hope to be able to predict where the crop will or will not perform well based on our soil map.”

A predictive soils map is actually the compilation of numerous other maps derived from soil surveys and a variety of other sources, including satellite imagery, that are overlaid to account for all possible predictive variables.

Boniface expects to earn his doctoral degree by 2016.

Boniface expects to earn his doctoral degree by 2016.

“First I have to develop a base map,” says Boniface. “You have the geological maps, the topographic maps, aerial photos, satellite images, etc. You sit down with that and create the base map by analyzing the remote sensing data. That allows you to group your soils in order to differentiate them from one another. Then you go into the field and you sample the soils to confirm the accuracy of that map. Next comes soil description and analysis. Then you compare all the information you have, run the GIS software and create a predictive map that explains what the nitrogen, pH levels, etc. might be. There are other layers that are then added to account for climate variability, accessibility based on road proximity, and water proximity from nearby rivers. All these are layers that will factor into a broad suitability map for rice production in Kilombero.”

Accurate GIS-based research requires accurate data sources, which are unfortunately much less available in Tanzania than in developed countries. Boniface acknowledges this as a major challenge to his research.

“The main issue with my research will likely be the availability of the remote sensing data,” says Boniface. “I need higher resolution data like satellite images to come up with the differences in mapping units, and I need a digital elevation model, which they don’t have in that part of the world, that have a high degree of accuracy. In Tanzania, I may be able to get digital elevation models that are accurate down to a 30×30 meter area, as opposed to the 5×5 meter areas of accuracy that can be found elsewhere.”

With the aid of his academic advisor at Ohio State, Dr. Brian Slater, Boniface has developed strategies to alleviate these challenges and possibly even secure additional funding for his research.

Speaking of Dr. Slater’s strengths as an advisor, Boniface states that, “he works in soils but he’s also an expert in GIS. This is his field of work and he’s guiding me on how to carry out this kind of research. We often discuss my research and the classes I should take, as well as how to gain additional funding through scholarships that I can apply to.”

Boniface has already implemented some of his research in Tanzania. In 2013 he returned for several months to conduct the soil survey and analysis he needed to complete his baseline map. Both Dr. Slater and Boniface’s local SUA advisor, Dr. Abel Kaaya, joined him in the field. Dr. Kaaya, a mapping expert with experience working throughout Africa, will continue to be a valuable source of knowledge when Boniface returns to collect further data.

“Dr. Kayaa made a very big contribution in planning and advising,” says Boniface. “When I go home to Tanzania, I have a very short time, and he is able to help me get everything done in that period of time. He’s a land evaluation specialist, so he’s been particularly useful in advising me how to describe land profiles.”

In addition to their individual strengths, Dr. Slater and Dr. Kayaa have both helped Boniface embrace the values of hard work, commitment and taking pride and enjoyment in one’s endeavors.

Boniface represents just 1 of 120 total iAGRI-sponsored scholars that will earn advanced degrees in agriculture by the year 2016.

Boniface represents just 1 of 120 total iAGRI-sponsored scholars that will earn advanced degrees in agriculture by the year 2016.

“Ultimately, their advisement has been valuable in understanding how to meet objectives,” explains Boniface. “Dr. Slater would like to see things done the way that they are supposed to be done. Similarly Dr. Kaaya wants that to be done too. That they enjoy the entire process, from field work to lab work, those are the lessons I’ll take from them.”

Boniface is looking forward to 2015, when he’ll return home, reunite with his family and conduct further field work in Tanzania. If all goes according to schedule, he’ll graduate in 2016 having produced a valuable agricultural asset for Tanzania — one that can both immediately increase rice production and serve as a model for future GIS-based mapping research and agricultural planning.

“This map will be very important to establish sustainable rice production because farmers can target soils that will not be spent in only one or two years,” claims Boniface. “They can use the map to decide where to invest and how much to invest. This kind of information can be extended to other areas and other crops in the future.”

After completing his degree, Boniface intends to work on mapping, land use planning and teaching. He hopes to help Tanzania become more food secure while teaching future generations how to create additional mapping resources.

“I’ll go on teaching so that I can impart the knowledge I’ve gained,” says an optimistic Boniface. “I’d like to continue researching mapping technologies to be able to assist with Tanzania’s land use planning, which the country needs. Whatever I do, I have to participate and engage myself to make sure that we have the best mapping resources possible.”

If you would like additional information on Boniface Massawe’s research or the opportunity to sponsor his research further, please contact us.

All images by Molly Kraybill and story written by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.


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Posted on

April 25, 2014