Biochar's First Harvest in Tanzania
  The Farmers Dilemma

As populations around the world come to grips with the accelerating effects of climate change and the anticipated impact it will have on their local landscapes, livelihoods and economies, many are turning to adaptation and mitigation strategies to help them navigate through what appears to be an increasingly uncertain future.

Smallholder farmer communities are especially vulnerable to unexpected variations in normal weather patterns and the increasingly frequent episodes of extreme weather events.  Slight swings in temperature or rainfall can mean the difference between a year marked by survival or sacrifice. 

With input costs steadily rising and soil fertility rates continuing to fall, smallholder farmers are continually on the lookout for low-cost / high-impact solutions to help tilt the scales of nature in their favor.

  In 2012 Radio Lifeline launched our Black Earth Project,
a research initiative designed to evaluate the various benefits of biochar when used as a soil amendment by smallholder coffee farmers in Rwanda. 18 test plots were constructed among six partner cooperatives, representing each of the major coffee growing regions in the country. Results of these trials demonstrated an average of 35% increase in yield and a 50% reduction in input costs within the first year among coffee trees treated with an application of biochar.

What is Biochar?

Biochar is a form of highly-porous charcoal, produced through a process called pyrolization, or the combustion of dried organic waste in an environment of extremely high temperature and very low oxygen. Fuel for this process can be sourced from dried biomass found in a typical farm setting including maize stalks, rice hulls, banana leaves, dried grasses, cow dung, leaves and bamboo waste.

Black Earth -Tanzania

In December of 2016, Radio Lifeline partnered with Tembo Coffee and MIICO, a network of community-based agricultural development organizations based in Mbeya, to launch the Black Earth project in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania.  Funds for the project were provided by the German Development Bank (DEG) as part of its Coffee Partnership of Tanzania program.

Six mature coffee plots were treated with various combinations of biochar, compost and different formulations of NPK fertilizer, with weekly results monitored by field technicians and agronomists associated with Tembo and MIICO.  In a separate trial, coffee seedlings planted in both full sun and shade were treated with applications of either biochar or NPK to evaluate the impact of biochar on the early stages of coffee tree development.
A local machine shop in Mbeya was engaged to manufacture six Climate Kilns, made from re-purposed oil drums at a cost of approximately $40 each.  The project will eventually create 50 additional kilns to be distributed throughout the region, with training in biochar production techniques provided by MIICO staff members.

First Harvest Results

Last month, after the first round of harvest, results demonstrated significant yield increases in those trees treated with amendments of biochar vs trees treated with traditional NPK fertilizer applications. Among the trees treated with a combination of biochar and compost, yield increases amounted to more than 43 times over those trees with traditional NPK fertilizer treatments. 

Source: Tembo Coffee Co.
  It should be noted that the Tanzania trials were carried out under less than ideal conditions.  This year, the rains arrived late and were accompanied by several episodes of hail, resulting in significant loss of cherries from the trees while the region as a whole suffered from an outbreak of Coffee Berry Disease (CBD).  These results reflect only the first round of the harvest season - we will compile more complete data once the season has ended.
  While the results of the biochar trials in East Africa are encouraging, additional trials are needed to reach a better understanding of how effective biochar may be within other coffee producing regions, climates and soil types.

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 Radio Lifeline is a US-registered, non-profit development organization with the mission of  "Providing smallholder farmers with access to information and sustainable tools that can lead to improved lives and livelihoods."