Azolla fertilizer at  Wangari Kuria's farm can be used as a protein nutrient in farm animals such as chicken and cattle and also can be used in crop farming. [David Gichuru, Standard]

The soaring prices of animal feed pose a global challenge for farmers. In Kenya, many are exploring locally produced alternatives, and one such promising option is the fast-growing and versatile aquatic fern, Azolla.

Azolla, an aquatic fern with robust nitrogen-fixing capabilities, serves as an excellent fertiliser and bait. According to a report by the Azolla Foundation, Azolla meal boasts 25.78 per cent crude protein, 15.71 per cent crude fiber, 3.47 per cent ether extract, 15.76 per cent ash, and 30.08 per cent nitrogen-free extract on an air-dry basis.

The report concludes that Azolla is the most promising aquatic plant for livestock feed, thanks to its easy cultivation, high productivity, and nutritive value. It has been successfully tested and recommended as feed for fish, swine, and poultry.

Agronomist David Adeoye highlights that Azolla’s composition makes it an economic and efficient feed substitute for livestock. Its high protein and low lignin content ensure easy digestion by livestock.

Azolla farming involves several key steps: Selecting a Suitable Area: Choose a still or slow-moving water area, such as a pond or container with a depth of 15 to 100 cm. The size depends on the targeted quantities, and using a dam liner can prevent water loss.

Getting the Spores: Obtain Azolla spores or biomass from a reliable source and introduce them into the prepared water. Providing Nutrients: Use common choices like cow dung or poultry droppings. Mix the manure with soil and spread it uniformly at the bottom of the growing area or dip it in a bag and immerse it in the pond or container for nutrient seepage.

Caring: Control weed growth through manual removal, and maintain water quality by monitoring pH (5 to 7.5), temperatures (20 to 35 degrees Celsius), and oxygen levels. Pest Management: Conduct daily inspections, as high temperatures make Azolla susceptible to pest infestations. Harvesting: Harvest Azolla after 10 to 12 days when it covers the water surface, using a net or scoop. If not used immediately, store it in a shaded area to prevent drying out. Azolla has a symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium, enhancing soil fertility. In rice farms, it reduces the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and controls weeds. As green manure, it improves soil structure and nutrient content.

Adeoye emphasises Azolla’s potential as a supplementary feed for livestock and fish, providing a nutritious and cost-effective alternative to expensive commercial feeds. Despite the lack of a ready market, Azolla is highly marketable and can be sold between farmers or individuals, starting from Sh1,000 per kilogramme.