Giving farmers options in improving soil quality

Biochar is new in Namibia but has immense potential to contribute to climate change adaptation.

18 November 2021 | Agriculture

STAFFF REPORTER

WINDHOEK

Are there other practices besides rainfall or irrigation and fertiliser that a farmer may need to ensure bountiful harvests?

According to a young Namibian, Sakeus Kafula, his product is not only manufactured using biomass from encroacher species, but also holds the answer to healthy ecosystems.

One solution to poor topsoil is the addition of biochar to the soil. Biochar is created using encroacher species or bush biomass.

Complementing the Namibian charcoal industry, biochar is made using parts of encroacher species seen as waste in charcoal production. These smaller pieces of the encroacher species biomass are then used to create the biochar.

Biochar has microbial fungi added to it.

“The fungi we use is the type that works with plants. We mix this in with the soil, and the soil becomes more productive,” says Kafula, who together with Joel Kafula, started Prime Biochar which is producing microbial biochar in Namibia.

A solution to poor topsoil health

The benefits of biochar are not only available to crop farmers, as Sakeus explains that it can also be safely added to livestock licks and feeds, and in doing this, animals are more easily able to utilise and digest poor quality feed.

Additionally, the addition of microbes to an animal’s diet reduces its methane production with an added benefit for the environment.

“People see yields going down or longer dry spells, and they think this is just the norm, but this is where biochar comes into play. It can help your crops survive these dry spells."

While it might be expensive initially to apply biochar to your soil, Kafula explains, “You apply it once and it can last in the soil for thousands of years.”

Kafula grew up watching common agricultural practices in northern Namibia and the resulting signs of degradation to the land.

“I grew up in a communal area, and it was the trend for us to plough every year, but we were destroying the soil over time.”

He explains that soil is living and dynamic, and although slowly, a changing environment.

“When it is diseased, it is degraded and therefore limited in its ability to sustain plant and animal productivity and diversity, as well as human health and habitation.”

Using science to improve agriculture

Microbial fungus, which is comprised of a multitude of species that grow in a mesh-like structure deep in the soil, provides a ladder for the plant’s roots to reach nutrients.

He explains that these two form a mutually beneficial relationship, with the plant providing carbohydrates that feed the microbial fungus and the fungus growing deeper into the earth offering the plant more opportunities for securing nutrients and water.

Adding microbial fungus to biochar is what gives you microbial biochar.

“If you look at how a plant feeds, most plants will draw their moisture and nutrient, from a depth of 40 centimetres. If you apply biochar to the soil, the roots of plants do not need to grow further than this depth to find water and nutrients, and they can use their energy to produce greater yields,” says Kafula.

Often soils in Namibia have poor cohesion and structure, coupled with low water retention and organic matter levels. When you add grazing animals and extensive ploughing practices, the result is overgrazing and in some cases the onset of desertification. A situation that can only be reversed with effective land management practices.

Fertiliser prices have increased of late, and if fertiliser leeches below a crop’s root zone, which is often the case with poor soil conditions, the money spent is of no value.

The passion that drives this business

Prime Biochar, a relatively young business, has already won first place in the Namibia Biomass Industry Group (N-BiG) Encroacher Bush Business Plan Competition of 2019.

“We have been engaging with farmers to create awareness about biochar, and are busy setting up local research trials, but it has been hard and research costs money,” notes Kafula.

Despite the challenges, Kafula remains passionately steadfast to his goal.

“If soil becomes unhealthy, life leaves, and we need to bring that life back. I saw from a young age how our practices were degrading the environment, and I knew this was what I needed to do, to be in a space that can help rectify some of these things.”

Biochar is new in Namibia. It is being used in organic agriculture and by several farmers in central Namibia. The product has immense potential to contribute to climate change adaptation.

The Namibia Charcoal Association (NCA), Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) are championing research activities as well as training and capacity building for production and application in various parts of the country.

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