The African Christians Organization Network (ACON) has been working in Western Kenya since 2000 to empower villagers by providing opportunities for development that are environmentally sustainable. Since 2004, they have been focusing their work on how to reduce deforestation while improving soils for local farmers in the area. Part of this solution is improved cookstoves and the use of biochar.
The Bungoma district of Western Kenya is 30 miles from Uganda border and near a national forest. Villagers living in the area are mainly farmers who rely on annual rains for all irrigation so water becomes crucial during the dry season. For cooking, they use a traditional 3 stone open fire, requiring a great deal of firewood and creating a lot of smoke. When Salim Mayeki Shaban of ACON started investigating fuel use in Bungoma, he found that the population was getting its firewood from primary forests. The high fuel demand was quickly deforesting the area and some villagers had been taking wood illegally from the national forest. To alleviate the pressure on the forest, ACON designed a project that would work with local villagers to promote energy conservation and reduce deforestation through the use of improved cooking stoves, designing biochar producing stoves, training local farmers on application and utilization of biochar, and making fuel briquettes from water hyacinth and other biomass materials (not from the forest).
Salim did not have a great amount of financial or informational resources for his work, so turned to the internet for a simple stove design that his group could make onsite to reduce fuel wood consumption. Using plans found online and a stove model from Uganda, he designed a “clay” stove—which is actually clay mixed with anthills to create a cement for the stoves and mixed in chopped straw (for insulation). After testing and reconfiguring, his group created a stove that reduced fuel wood consumption by 50% and created less smoke. Salim estimates that from 2004 – 2009, their group built over 10,000 improved stoves.
To fund this work, ACON decided to sell the stoves to the villagers. The stoves were marketed as a money saving device that would pay for itself in just months due to the reduction in firewood costs. Initially, villagers were much more interested in purchasing a stove that was metal as they felt it would last longer and operate better. Salim and his team started to add metal stoves (imported) to their inventory, but also had village competitions between the stoves such as a water boiling test and kitchen performance test so villagers could decide which model would work best for them.
With the stove program going strong, Salim then started investigating the use of biochar. Villagers in the region of Bungoma practice subsistence farming and depend on fertilizers for their crops. Additionally, they have had recurring serious droughts and Salim wanted to see if using biochar could help with water and nutrient retention in the soil.
Salim contacted Wayne Johnson and Rob Lavoie of AirTerra in Canada about using biochar. They had ongoing discussions for 8 months over email and the phone and before Wayne and Rob went to the project area for 2 weeks in 2009 to work with Salim.
Rob and Wayne spent 2 weeks with the group and helped set up a series of test plots to see how the biochar worked in the soil. Salim’s stoves are not biochar-producing stoves so the group made biochar by buying wood charcoal from the marketplace which was then crushed into small pieces. They created nine test plots varying from Kenyan soil alone to soil plus biochar to soil plus biochar plus manure plus urine. Biochar was added at a rate of 15% of overall soil mass. Using a moisture meter, they found that soil moisture in pure Kenyan soil (without biochar) was tested at level “2”—dry; while the soil with biochar was level “9”—wet. The project also tested the moisture at the root level of various crops (maize, yams, sweet potatoes and squash) and found similar results between the un-amended soils and the biochar-amended soils. Plant growth was also larger. This was tested by comparing the growth of plants in each of the test plots on a weekly basis and then weighing the final yield after harvest.
Salim found that the increased yield on farms that iswas worth the cost of buying charcoal on the marketplace, crushing it and adding it to plots. One issue with charcoal purchased in the marketplace is that it may not be sustainable. The project team is working on creating stoves that use less wood (and could also burn agricultural waste) and at the same time, create biochar.
One important aspect of this work is training local villagers on using biochar in the fields. Since the first results of the field trials in 2009, ACON has been carrying out community training on the application and utilization of biochar and the importance of biochar in soil. Participants in a training group learn about biochar and set up field trials over the course of four days and then are given biochar to take home with them. The project goal for 2010 is to train 1,000 local farmers in area villages using the training module developed and improved upon during the initial trainings.