BRAZZAVILLE — In the area around the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, it's common practice to burn vegetation in fields before planting crops. But this slash-and-burn approach inflicts severe damage to the forests and the soil, not to mention to the health of women, who are the primary farmers in this area.

"The placement of these lands under fallow until they regenerate, forces women to regularly move away from the lands," says Marguerite Homb, president of a non-profit organization called Health and Nature. "They sometimes use too many chemical products at the risk of their own health.”

Homb says the women are only doing what they know, but that much of the harm could be avoided with the use of an organic fertilizer called moringa, a plant native to these parts of Africa that has many beneficial properties.

"We've been using it as a fertilizer for our own crops since 2005, and we've never had to change lands," she says. "We cultivate every year on the same parcel. We also make compost with moringa seeds mixed with other substances."

Homb says it could be a "farewell" to pesticides, inappropriate herbicides, polluting chemical fertilizers and slash-and-burn practices in general.

Moringa plantation, Sep. 3, 2002 — Photo: Books For Life

In the district of Madimbu, the training center St. Joseph de Mbouono has also embraced the environmentally friendly moringa. "We use the dead leaves to fertilize the soil," explains center coordinator François Xavier Mifoundou.

Still, some cultivators are hesitant to put the recommendations into practice. "When you ask them to use natural fertilizers, they think it's a waste of time," Mifoundou says. "What they want is to harvest quickly. What matters to them is to quickly make a profit."

Idriss M'Bouka, a geophysics PhD student at Marien Ngouabi University, praises this approach — and encourages women to abandoned slash-and-burn agriculture, which he says deteriorates the soil and ecosystem.

Mifoundou says moringa has other uses too. "To protect crops against insects, we immerse moringa leaves in water for a few days. The liquid we obtain enables us to treat the crops. It's also an incredible feed for chickens."