As unemployed young men pick through trash heaps near Jimma University in southwestern Ethiopia to find treasures to sell, they search for one of the hottest resources in demand at the moment: discarded animal bones.
Animal bone is one of Ethiopia’s only sources of phosphorus and calcium, nutrients the country’s acidic, depleted soils have in shortest supply. Most of the country’s 80 million farmers, who comprise 80 percent of the population, cultivate small parcels of the ruddy soils. Despite the fact that Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, fertilizer often remains an out-of-reach expense. And if farmers are able to buy phosphorus fertilizer, they typically apply only a fraction of what is needed, which diminishes, if not eliminates, the intended effects of the fertilizer. As a result, hectares of stunted maize plants — made worse by the current devastating drought — are a common sight, and 10.1 million households in the sub-Saharan country will rely on food aid this year. In search of nondegraded land, farmers expand operations onto steep mountain sites, which are not ideal for agriculture, either.