The serendipitous thorn

The serendipitous thorn

Since 2008 the Soil Fertility Project has been looking at the addition of biochar to soils in semi-desert conditions. Initially David Friese-Greene in discussion with James Bruges developed projects with SCAD, an Indian NGO in Tamil Nadu.

Then in 2013 David, through his contacts in Namibia, looked for communities that had land, a desire to grow more of their own food. and, most importantly, that had the vision to make things happen. Africa, even more than India, has problems with the desertification of marginal land and he felt that the experiences gained in India could be applied in Namibia and act as an example to other African countries. 

After a week travelling in the far north west - a community found him. The story goes that when leaving Sesfontein after a brief stop to get fuel he was looking for somewhere to camp for the night before travelling further westward, when a thorn punctured a tyre on his Land Rover. The next morning he returned to Sesfontein to get the tyre repaired and was helped by a wonderful group of mechanics who asked him what he was doing in their country. After some explanation they invited him to meet one of the community elders, a farmer, who in turn told him to go to the Community Agricultural office and talk to Wilbard Neliwa. It all began from that meeting - thanks to a small thorn that made him turn back. 


The Sesfontein community. On the right the green part is the irrigated community garden. To the left is the school.

During the same journey David visited Purros a small community 106 km to the west, and met Robbin Uatokuja who acted as guide into the country beyond. In Purros, as in Sesfontein, the community was small and had very little access to fresh food. Most people here have a poor diet that includes meat, dairy products from goat's milk  and only a few vegetables. The consequences of this diet are clearly serious. Generally speaking the community is reasonably well fed and under nourished. Most food has to be imported into the area which also makes it expensive. If these communities could grow more of their own food it would make a big difference. The Namibian government is aware of this and is developing policies to increase food security. The president recently said that tackling 'food security' was  now a top priority.  

In  March 2014 David returned to Sesfontein and began working with Wilbard Neliwa an Agricultural Extension Technician and Bennie Ganuseb from the Kunene region Farmers Support Project to develop a strategy for the Sesfontein Biochar Initiative. Various sites were researched to determine which would be most suitable for the project. Bennie had previously bought some land near Warmquelle, 30 km to the east. It seemed perfect given that there was a spring nearby with good water supply and land that could be used without community issues relating to ownership. See the 'maps' menu for more details.

Bennie's land at Warmquelle. Banana plants are on the left.

Wilbard and Bennie preparing field trials.             Click to expand.

David returned to the UK and from then until his return in September 2015 the project was put on hold whilst completing work in India.

During that time Wilbard and Bernie began field trials designed to demonstrate the use of biochar. The pictures on the right show land preparation, biochar application and initial growth. Unfortunately a plaque of armoured crickets destroyed the crop before any results could be recorded.

Elephants can also destroy a field in minutes and protecting crops is an important part of the work.   

In early 2015 whilst still in England, David wrote to the University of Namibia to make contact with anyone interested in the Soil Fertility Projects work. Professor Fisseha Itanna head of Agricultural studies responded very encouragingly and on his return to Namibia in November 2015 David met with the professor and other members of his staff to give a presentation on biochar. Later Professor Itanna introduced him to Dr Simon Angombe, who is now Dean for the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, who subsequently became interested in the work of the Soil Fertility Project.

After further discussion Dr Angombe visited the Sesfontein project to see for himself what the team had already achieved. He was excited about the possibility of working there and we look forward to collaborating closely with him in the future.

In February William Stevenson, a MSc student from the University of Amsterdam, joined the project for a three month internship to study an aspect of biochar that is vital to our work in Namibia. The following is a brief extract from his University project application that describes his area of research. 

'A key determinant to the success of the overall project is to gain certainty (or not) that the charcoal dust is suitable to be used as a soil amendment. The critical factors here are the toxicity and the water retention capacity of the char. Initial analyses have shown that the char can be considered devoid of contaminants. The current challenge is to ascertain the water retention capacity since this is the critical property for improving soil quality in these arid lands. It is thought (and tested) that char left to cool in dry anoxic conditions post-pyrolysis inherits the characteristic of being hydrophobic; this is the situation for charcoal dust. However, this inherent property can be modified through sufficient soaking in water, rendering the char desirably hydrophilic. It is essential that the SFP acquires in-depth knowledge about all factors surrounding this important process.'