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From motorcycles to farms, biochar lures Mwea youth

A few years ago, Alvin Nyaga, 29, used to ride a boda boda, a popular public motorcycle transport service in rural and urban Kenya, but quit riding along with some of his youthful colleagues to venture into producing biochar from rice husks along the Mwea Nairobi road.

Biochar is charcoal produced by pyrolysis of biomass in the absence of oxygen; it is used as a soil ameliorant for both carbon sequestration and soil health benefits, boosting farming. Biochar is a stable solid that is rich in carbon and can endure in soil for thousands of years.

According to Anthony Mugambi, Country Team Leader – Kenya, some of the salient beneficial effects of biochar on plant growth and health include improved uptake of nutrients, enhanced water-holding-capacity in sandy soil, better water balancing, boosts thermal economy due to darker surfaces, helps the plant to develop resistance against diseases, revamps microbiological activity and diversity, and binding and decomposition of pollutant among others.

Although the venture is still in its infancy, for Nyaga and his peers, biochar production has become a profitable business as customers from Embu, Kirinyaga and Meru counties commuting along the road stop by to buy the commodity, which has helped them improve crop yield and quality.

Alvin Nyaga holds biochar from his Mwea Carbonators premise along Mwea-Nairobi Road

The biochar making idea was inspired by indigenous knowledge and training that Nyaga and his colleagues acquired from the Kilimo Trust-led Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Rice Initiative for Climate Smart Agriculture (R4iCSA) project workshop.

R4iCSA is a two years (2020-2022) pilot project introducing regenerative agriculture in rice-based farming systems through sustainable rice cultivation, inter/rotational cropping with leguminous species and management of crop waste streams, as Nyaga and co are doing in the manufacture of biochar.

“I found out that one cannot fail to get something meaningful from the farm because each family/household eats three meals a day. It is productive and profitable to engage in agriculture. There is money in the farm. Also, the boda boda business has become very competitive,” Nyaga explains his reasons for dropping riding for life on the farm.

‘‘We started burning rice husks when we realized that the biochar from the husks makes the land more productive based on an idea we got from the R4iCSA project, which opened our eyes on the need to embrace smart agriculture.’’

“We also discovered that biochar reduces soil acidity. Before gaining insight from the project, we did not know much about biochar until Kilimo Trust encouraged us by giving us some information. When we applied the idea in the farm, we realized that biochar is beneficial,” adds Nyaga.

He is optimistic that his group through support from organizations like Kilimo Trust will continue with the work hoping to upscale production and reach out to more farmers to multiply the knowledge and lessons they have learned in the business.

“Our company hopes to start selling biochar to agro-vets/agro-inputs shops because I am certain farmers who will use it will see the benefits. Our customers who have bought it always come back happy.’’ Nyaga stated.

“I have seen maize farmers get up to three cobs per plant after applying biochar. The soil does not get tired of producing if you give it the right nutrients. We burn biochar in the evening to avoid fumes emanating during the day’’ Nyaga continues.

“Although now we are still down, we said we don’t want quick money, we want to build wealth from farming bit by bit because we know that is the way to sustainability now and in the future. We bank on Kilimo Trust to continue getting advice and guidance from their pool of experts,” Nyaga says. 

Another farmer in Mwea, Kirinyaga County, 54-year-old mother of three Josephine Mwaniki, says Kilimo Trust has helped her and her farmer cooperative to plan land and minimize farming risks.

“The project also exposes us to smart agriculture, like knowing when to plant legumes right after harvesting so that we benefit from other incomes other than rice. That kind of information is really helpful,” she says.

“Through the project, I will get more information about how to prepare my nursery beds, soil treatment and access soil sampling. The experts will help me understand the nutrients needed and advise on the status of the soil, whether it has acidity or lacks nutrients, so that I get best yields.”

“With the right knowledge, I expect a successful output from my farm, unlike previously when I applied fertilizer haphazardly. The experts told me about palletization of fertilizer instead of applying it randomly. Before that I did not know how to measure properly, ending up spending more money,” Mwaniki recalls.

“After this training, when I go to church, I will be asking to be given five minutes to share what I have learned so that my fellow farmers can benefit from the knowledge too. I will also inform my neighbours what I have been taught,” she says.

Josephine Mwaniki, who chaired the workshop in Mwea speaks to Kilimo Trust team after the workshop

Egerton University Director of Agro-Science Park Professor Paul Kimurto, a member of the R4iCSA project implementing team, says Kilimo Trust and partners will continue to support farmers with information about the importance of biochar.

He explains that biochar is one smart way of absorbing the rice husk. He challenges the youth to take up the opportunity to integrate it into the agricultural value chain. “We envision a future where biochar producers such as Mwea Carbonators will supply biochar to farmers far beyond the Central Kenya region.”

Prof Paul Kimurto holds biochar at Safi Organics premise in Mwea, Kirinyaga County

The business incubated through the project will be showcased during field days to teach farmers how best to utilize the concept of regenerative agriculture, Kimurto states. 

“Anything that is value-added stands a chance to contribute significantly to the wellbeing of farmers.  As Egerton University, we commend KT for seeing an opportunity to engage such groups to embrace simple technologies that hold the potential to boost farming incomes. We are likely to have more groups embrace the concept,” He said.

“We are going to take samples from Mwea Carbonators, go to the lab at Egerton University and assess the biochar, looking at components and further test the product in the field,” he hinted.

Kilimo Trust’s Gabriel Olengo, Project Technical Assistant says Mwea Carbonators are one of the businesses incubated through the Kilimo Trust programme of supporting young innovators to make biochar and play a part in transforming their community farming practices.

“We are going to advance the provision of visibility through communications tailored on stakeholder needs so that they can get a platform to showcase the technology and its use,” he said.

Gabriel Olengo Kilimo Trust Technical Assistant, R4iCSA project inspects rice straw in one of Vermicomposting site in Kisumu County

Joyce Kamande, the head of operations at Safi Organics, one of Kilimo Trust’s partners, says their company uses technology to convert farmers’ crop waste to high yielding organic fertilizers. “We currently have three products – pure biochar, planting fertilizer and top-dressing organic fertilizer.”

In addition, Safi Organics utilizes the Black Soldier fly (BSF) maggots to accelerate the organic matter decomposition, thus enriching nutrients that boost the biochar to be more efficient with diverse nutrients required in the soil.Safi Organics aims at promoting regenerative agriculture in farming systems, focusing on boosting soil fertility so that farmers can increase yields and curb soil degradation in partnership with Kilimo Trust.

“As we continue to package the products, we are already seeing other providers joining to apply the idea in their farming systems,” Kamande says.

Joyce Kamande shows some of the biochar products developed from rice husks at Safi Organics

Happy farmers have been consistently using the product since 2016.  One farmer used to harvest 20 bags in her one-acre rice farm, but after using biochar, she gained a 50% increase in yield.

Safi Organics does soil testing, conducts trials, analyzes and validates the various inputs into organic fertilizers through the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and private sector CropNuts to incorporate their views and expertise to make their biochar the best in the market.

“Vermicomposting is another aspect of regenerative agriculture we want to tap into as introduced by Kilimo Trust and Egerton University. The company is looking at the environment where rice straws can decompose very fast into manure to complement biochar in boosting farming practices.

“We have seen a rise in demand for organic fertilizer and soil amenders from biochar because soil acidity is a big challenge in this region. After all, the soil has been deprived of crucial nutrients over time,” Kamande notes.

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