Sesfontein in the far north west of Namibia is a town of about 700 people who live on the edge of the Namib desert. On the right of the picture below is a fenced community garden inspired by Wilbard Neliwa, a government agriculture officer, in 2008. Five years on, the garden is now 21 hectares, farmed by 40 people for the benefit of the whole community. Besides the occasional marauding elephant the major problem is water shortage. Last year it didn’t rain at all and anything that will help retain moisture and nutrients in the soil would be of great benefit.
Wilbard Neliwa a government Agricultural Extension Officer based in Sesfontein has been working with other members of the community such as Bennie Gunaseb a mentor for the Farmers Support Project to encourage organic growing in the area.
In 2014 after meeting with David Friese-Greene of SFP, Wilbard and Bennie started the Sesfontein Biochar Initiative to see if biochar would be of benefit in their efforts to make the arid soil more productive.
The first task was to locate a suitable supply of charcoal that could be used as a biochar amendment. None was available locally but 200 km east there was an abundant supply of inexpensive charcoal dust, produced as a by product of large scale charcoal production for export. SFP had previously researched this and with the generous help of a producer Ian Galloway, arranged for 300 kg to be delivered to Sesfontein for the first trials.
Our primary objective in running these trials is see if adding biochar to the soil is biologically beneficial, economically viable and sustainable. We must also ensure as best we can that there are no unwanted side effects from the application of our biochar in these specific soils. To that end a chemical analysis of the charcoal dust was undertaken by the SFP in the UK which showed the the dust suitable as a soil amendment. Part of that report is shown on the Biochar page of this website.
The next step was to locate a suitable place to run experimental field trials. It was decided that land Bennie had leased near Warmquelle - see Maps - was best suited. A spring nearby ensured irrigation and the location meant easy access. We decided not to begin experimental work at the Sesfontein community gardens because of sensitive land and water issues.
As described on the History page, trial plots were prepared. Some were treated with charged biochar, others were control plots without biochar. Unfortunately a swarm of armoured crickets destroyed the crop before any results could be recorded.
In September 2015 work began again on the Warmquelle site and a further eight tonnes of charcoal dust was ordered by SFP and delivered to Warmquelle for use in new experimental trials.
Dr Simon Angombe from UNAM is also very keen to work with the project and is looking for additional funding. He is hoping to send a Masters student to carry out experimental work. An extract from his proposal document are recorded below.
In 2016 we shall be running the trials and publishing results, which will appear on this website.
An important procedure before applying biochar in the soil is to soak it in water first. Charcoal is so efficient at absorbing water if it is applied dry it may reduce water availability until it is saturated. Saturating the biochar is also an opportunity to impregnate it with nutrients.
Adding NPK, organic fertilisers such as locally made manure tea or compost to the water biochar mix is very effective in helping to improve soil.
As described on the History page, William Stevenson will be working at Warmquelle to study the best approach for charging the dry biochar.
The first new trial will begin in March and the experimental procedure is laid out in the following images.