“All life depends upon the soil… there can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together”. – Charles Kellogg
Boniface Gathogoh, an Akili Model Farmer and local farmer from Nyeri; a land famous for its rich resources and towering mountain whose peak dances among the clouds, wakes up just as the gray of the night shifts to a golden yellow. It’s the crack of dawn, and his farm, which sits on the eastern side of his Nyeri homestead in a village known as Gichira, needs tending to. However, farming is not as easy as it used to be, and the soil, not as rich and fertile. Back breaking long hours characterize his days on the farm, with little yield to show for his efforts.
“Growing up, I remember my friends and I would dig around in the soil to unearth small insects and worms to play with. But now as a grown up, where I have to dig to cultivate or plant my crops, I hardly see any,” Boniface Gathogoh states worriedly. This is a clear indication of the sharp decline in microbiome activity in the earth’s soil; living organisms that are known to enrich the soil.
He continues, notes of concern ringing through his words, “I remember in those days, simply leaving the land alone and practicing minimal disturbance for a season would lead to a thriving variety of plants and a thick appearance of bushes. These days, doing so would mean a land with no plants growing. Even some indigenous plants are nowhere to be seen.”
Boniface is alluding to a practice known as regenerative farming: an approach to farming that seeks to heal the land, rather than take away from it. Minimal tillage, growing cover crops and avoiding monocultures – practices that Akili Group encourages – are implemented on his farm. Yet, the earth’s soil is still not as fertile as it should be. What could be wrong?
“Today’s soil is hard and red in color, rather than moist and dark brown. This is largely due to the adoption of ‘cheap’ ways of farming by using herbicides, pesticides, etc. In turn, soil has become degraded. It’s clear that cheap is expensive, and has harmed us as farmers in more ways than one.” Boniface Gathogoh, farmer from Nyeri County, Tetu sub county in Aguthi.
Soil Scientist Dr. Lilian Wanjiru Mbuthia vividly illustrates the current situation, stating, “It is no secret that crop productivity levels in Kenya are on the gradual decline. Over the past two decades, focus has been on maximizing production at all costs. This comes at the expense of depleting soil – our most valuable natural resource. Continuous tillage and crop production on the same piece of land has led to nutrient mining and soil degradation. The increasing use (and misuse) of chemical fertilizers has resulted in most soils becoming acidic, further exacerbating the problem.” (Farm Star).
These human activities have accelerated the natural process of soil degradation through practices like deforestation, overgrazing, and intensive cultivation. It’s clear many farmers opt for conventional farming methods, a reality that Akili notes with concern, due to their cost-effectiveness and widespread availability. However, these short term solutions are leading to a long term impact that is, and will continue to be felt in coming generations unless proactive steps are taken. The hard hitting consequences are causing a ripple effect straight from the farmers homestead, to the entire nation, threatening our food and nutrition security.
In the context of pursuing food and nutrition security, maintaining healthy and productive soils is imperative. Yet, for resource-constrained smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, the persistent challenge of declining soil fertility remains a major hindrance to agricultural productivity. In Kenya, over half of all sampled soils in Kenya demonstrated seriously low levels of essential nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen and zinc from a survey conducted in 2014. The same nationwide – conducted survey on soil fertility also revealed alarmingly low levels of soil PH, among other critical issues. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, these issues manifested as a decrease of maize production from over 4 t per hectare of land to as little under 1 t per hectare in that year alone.
“Unless we take the initiative to take drastic measures towards building back our soil resilience, then in a few years’ time we will not be able to feed our nation and will be even more heavily reliant on food imports. While it would take a lot of work and patience to build back our soil resilience, it is not an impossibility. It will take a lot of focus and intentionality towards the use of regenerative soil management practices adopted to suit different production systems and communities. The build back of soil carbon and organic matter is vital towards this and biochar is one of the vital ingredients that can enhance this process.”
Dr. Lilian Wanjiru Mbuthia, Soils Scientist
The sorry state of once fertile soils, and the horrendous ramifications on smallholder agriculture and food security may leave us groping in the dark, desperate for glimmering embers of hope. We can perhaps find a part of the answer in a substance that can perhaps be considered, black gold.
Biochar and Its potential impact on smallholder farmers
Biochar is a carbon-rich, porous material that is produced through a process called pyrolysis, which involves heating organic biomass such as wood, agricultural residues, or animal waste in a low-oxygen environment. This process prevents the biomass from fully combusting and instead, breaks it down into a stable form of charcoal.
Biochar is known for its exceptional ability to enhance soil fertility, improve water retention, and sequester carbon in the soil for extended periods. It acts as a long-term carbon sink, promoting soil health, microbial activity, and nutrient retention, making it a valuable tool in sustainable agriculture and environmental management.
In Akili Group’s area of operation, where over 300,000 farmers earn their living from typically degraded soils, Biochar has the potential to make a significant difference by offering a range of benefits that improve soil quality, crop productivity, and overall sustainability of their agricultural practice. In areas with degraded or contaminated soils, biochar can help remediate the soil by improving its structure and reducing the bioavailability of contaminants. This is particularly relevant for smallholder farmers to whom land degradation is a current and pressing reality.
“I have a vision of how biochar can work wonders for smallholder agriculture – soils would be replenished, leading to healthier crops and stronger communities.” Abednego Kassim, Project Manager at Akili Group
With 60% of sub-Saharan Africa consisting of small-holder farmers and a 23% of GDP coming from agriculture, transforming crop and plant waste into crop yield for enhanced agricultural and food productivity is essential and critical. This is what we achieve by producing and using biochar. And given that the population is expected to double in Africa to 2.5B people by 2050 with everyone dependent on the soil to grow our food, biochar is a necessary solution to a critical and urgent problem.
Integrating biochar into agricultural practices empowers smallholder farmers to establish a sustainable soil management cycle that drives higher yields, curbs environmental impact, and enhances livelihoods. Biochar’s porous structure fosters beneficial soil microorganisms and retains vital nutrients, boosting soil fertility and crop health. The absorbent nature of biochar bolsters water retention, mitigating soil erosion and bolstering drought resilience. Furthermore, its capacity to enhance nutrient retention and microbial activity can lead to reduced reliance on chemical fertilizers, cutting costs while supporting eco-friendly farming approaches.
Biochar Experiment in Partnership with EcoAct
In 2022, The Akili Group partnered with EcoAct on Phase 1 of a biochar experiment aimed at validating the operational aspects of carbon credits generated through biochar development. Through this journey, the collaborators delved into the operational intricacies of generating carbon credits from biochar while encompassing essential factors such as raw material selection, kiln deployment, and pyrolysis methodologies.
“Biochar has massive potential in treating depleted soils and improving crop yields. Witnessing these benefits has been amazing, and I am looking forward to educating and sharing with communities on its value.” Martha Wanjiku, Biochar Production Supervisor and Agronomy Expert, Akili Group
On this journey, the Akili and EcoAct team collaborated to traverse various stages of biochar production as outlined in the VCS methodology. The team explored the application of biochar for carbon credit generation, tailored to local contexts, raw materials, and kilns. The process involved distinct stages, beginning with a careful pre-treatment plan to evaluate the feasibility of local replication by assessing raw material volume and weight. It then advanced to meticulous pyrolysis, involving precise selection of kilns, suppliers, and security equipment, with vigilant supervision from production to sample collection for laboratory analysis. The subsequent phase tested the efficacy of biochar application on various farms, evaluating its impact on crop yields based on a specified protocol.
Finally, a comprehensive analysis of collected data, strategically aggregated insights and recommendations, charting a course for future undertakings and providing a blueprint for a broader-scale biochar project in the region. To undertake this experiment, EcoAct and Akili collaborated with Kenyatta University, further enriching the experiment’s insights and lending academic expertise to the experiment.
Long-term Carbon Sequestration in Partnership with Smallholder Farmers
Akili Group envisions the development of highly impactful projects that contribute to carbon sequestration while helping smallholder farmers improve their soils. Biochar acts as a long-term carbon sink, locking carbon into the soil, potentially for hundreds of years. By incorporating biochar into their fields, smallholder farmers can contribute to carbon sequestration, helping combat climate change while improving their soils. Additionally, smallholder farmers can potentially generate income by producing biochar from surplus biomass and selling it to other farmers or markets. This creates an additional revenue stream.
The Biochar Experiment conducted in 2022 not only unlocked the potentials of biochar but also exemplified the power of collaboration, knowledge sharing, and local empowerment. As the experiment unfolded, it formed a crucial building block for sustainable endeavors. It is envisioned that biochar will become a beacon of change, resilience, and environmental stewardship . Stay tuned as we document the next steps in this remarkable journey, working together to forge a path towards a more sustainable and prosperous future.
Mahmoud, Y., Njenga, M., Sundberg, C., & Roing de Nowina, K. (2021, May). Soils, sinks, and smallholder farmers: Examining the benefits of biochar energy transitions in Kenya. ScienceDirect. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629621001262#s0035
Mbuthia, L.W. ( 2015, June 30). Rethinking our soil management practices: The need for organic fertilizers. AgriProFocus. https://agriprofocus.com/post/5592c164d58d835d842072d4
NATIONAL AGRICULTURAL SOIL MANAGEMENT POLICY. (n.d.). Ministry of Agriculture. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from https://kilimo.go.ke/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Draft-National-Agricultural-Soil-Management-Policy-NASMP-September-2020.pdf
Regenerative Agriculture 101. (2021, November 29). NRDC. Retrieved September 4, 2023, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/regenerative-agriculture-101#techniques