Restoring degraded soil in Africa
The UN designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils which helped focus the world’s attention on the fact that over 70% of the world’s topsoil is seriously degraded and if we don’t start to care for and rebuild it now we will struggle to grow the food we need in the future.
Despite all the talk and good intentions this ‘quiet’ global crisis goes on for the most part unchecked and unacknowledged.
A recent report prepared by the Montpellier Panel, based at Imperial College London, warns that Africa’s soils are already in serious trouble. More than half of Africa's arable land and a third of grazing land is damaged and if left unchecked could mean widespread famine for years to come. And if Africa is not able to feed itself the potential for an ever increasing number of environmental refugees is high.
It is within this context that the Soil Fertility Project (SFP) has begun work in Namibia.
The Soil Fertility Project (SFP) is a Trust established in 2008 with the aim of increasing the productivity of poor/degraded soils worldwide for the benefit of local communities. Current work is focusing on rural lands of Namibia which suffer from severe water shortages and low nutrient conditions. People living in these remote communities rely heavily on imported food and tend to have a nutritionally poor diet.
The resources to grow more of their own food, especially vegetables would increase health, reduce living costs and increase overall community well-being. Adopting long-term sustainable land management practices is essential to avoid further erosion/degradation and secure healthy soils and greater food security. The SFP believe that applying biochar to the soil may be a key tool in achieving this. What’s more, Namibia has one the world’s leading sustainable charcoal production industries, meaning high quantities of ‘low-value’ charcoal dust by-product can be used as a soil amendment for this purpose. SFP favours the production of compost whenever possible and to only use unwanted woody biomass for the making of biochar.
In the central northern parts of Namibia there is a major problem with the encroachment of invasive bush species into grassland and river bed areas. These hardwood bushes inhibit the growth of other plants by successfully competing for any available water and nutrients. The government is encouraging farmers to clear away these bushes and use the woody biomass, to make charcoal. It is from this source that after grading we get charcoal dust for use as biochar.
Implementing this ‘win-win’ chain is a primary goal of the SFP and in accordance with the Namibian government’s aim of preventing further land degradation and increasing national food security. The first steps are to demonstrate the benefits of using biochar as a soil amendment.
Scientists around the world are exploring the potential benefits of biochar as a soil amendment. These include increasing water holding capacity and providing a substrate or 'living space' for essential soil micro-organisms and Mycorrhizae fungi.
We are not suggesting that biochar is a magic bullet. Composting, the introduction of organic matter into well aerated soil is of primary importance. However biochar, particularly in arid poor soils, can radically improve conditions in the soil to encourage nutrient availability for plants.
Another longer term benefit of burying carbon synthesised by plants, is the reduction of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere. By improving the soil we can also mitigate global warming.
This website aims to give an overview of the work being carried out by the Soil Fertility Project in Namibia and to introduce some of the people and organisations involved.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a personal thank you to Marion Wells and James Bruges, trustees of the RH Southern Trust who started and have continued to support the work of the Soil Fertility Project.
Without their inspiration and dedication none of these projects would be possible.
David Friese-Greene Director SFP