Feature Story

Getting more from the soil: An Ethiopian farmer shows the way

August 17, 2017

A farmer in Ethiopia stands next to one of his fields
A Global Environment Facility-funded project in Ethiopia is helping subsistence farmers make use of unwanted biomass residues to improve livelihoods. Photo Credit: Bio Char

Ibrahim Aba Fita, 52, a farmer in southwestern Ethiopia, had a problem a few years ago: Despite hard work and the application of chemical fertilizer, his crop yields were declining year by year.

But thanks to a chance encounter, Ibrahim realized that the problem was the poor quality of his soil. Since then, he has changed the way he farms and now produces more food. And along the way he has become an inspiration to his community.

Ibrahim’s change of approach was prompted by Sharing Knowledge on the Use of Biochar for Sustainable Land Management, a three-year Global Environment Facility-funded project focused on demonstrating and promoting the adoption of Sustainable Land Management practices involving biochar in China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru and Viet Nam.

Despite a large number of scientific studies in recent years, formal biochar research is still in its infancy. However, there is much traditional knowledge about the use of burnt biomass residues to enhance soil productivity.

In this case, biochar is being used as part of a Global Environment Facility-funded project that focuses on improving the capture and efficient use of nutrients, enhancing soil productivity, improving climate resilience, and contributing to watershed management.

Biochar is defined by the Biochar International website as “carbonised biomass obtained from sustainable sources and sequestered in soils to sustainably enhance their agricultural and environmental value under present and future management”. Biochar, a porous material, can help retain water and nutrients in the soil for the plants to take up as they grow.

Implemented by UN Environment and executed by Starfish Initiatives – with partners Nanjing Agricultural University, Jimma University, World Agroforestry Centre, Asociación para la promoción del desarrollo sustentable, Thai Nguyen University of Sciences, Cornell University, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, and the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute – the Biochar for Sustainable Soils project  aims to demonstrate and promote the adoption of sustainable land management.

Ibrahim – who lives in Mana District, Oromia, with his wife and five children – agreed to be part of the focus group and engaged actively in every activity of the project.  

After Jimma University conducted detailed discussions with Ibrahim and other participating farmers, and after participating in experimental biochar field trials, Ibrahim’s understanding of biochar and biochar-based fertilizers inspired him to adopt the innovative technique himself.

He agreed to participate in experimental biochar field trials and has also attended various farmers’ field days organized by Jimma University. He also saw the positive effects of biochar firsthand in experiments conducted by Jimma University on maize and soybeans.

I realized that I needed to turn the non-competitive agricultural residues available from my own land into an advantage,” says Ibrahim. “I decided to collect most of the available residues to co-compost them together with biochar for application to my soil. I have started to plant cash crops such as cabbage and hot pepper. I understand that I cannot transform all my land in a single year, and so I will continue converting the residues into biochar every year and use my biochar formulations to change my land step by step.

By producing biochar and co-composting it with other biomass residues, and then applying the biochar formulation to his land, Ibrahim is now growing coffee, cabbage, avocado, hot pepper, khat, and root crops – and increasing his income.

He recycles and converts the non-competitive agricultural residues available on his land into biochar, and uses it to improve his soil and increase crop productivity. He is an inspiration to other community members who have witnessed his higher crop productivity, according to project leaders.

Ibrahim has adopted two biochar-production technologies (stove and Kon Tiki soil pit) and is preparing and using his own biochar formulations. As a result, he is using less chemical fertilizer than other farmers who are not using this technique.

The project has brought about a positive change in agricultural practices at the individual and household level, with clear potential to be scaled up to the community and district level in the near future.

Our aim is to multiply these benefits exponentially by scaling up and making what we have discovered and learned accessible worldwide,” says UN Environment ecosystems expert Ersin Esen.

Learn about what the project team have discovered so far, help spread the word and win a trip to Peru on the Biochar for Sustainable Soils site.

Unlike charcoal, biochar is only produced from biomass residues that otherwise would not be used, or even pose environmental problems. Biochars have been produced from coffee husk left to decompose, chicken litter that farms cannot dispose of, green waste diverted from landfill, sugarcane bagasse abandoned next to a sugar factory, rice straw and corn stover diverted from open burning, and cattle bones. Recovering these residues for biochar application to soil has contributed to efficient nutrient capture, carbon sequestration, and improved waste management.

This story was originally published by UNEP.