When Ghanaian researcher Edward Yeboah was introduced to biochar, his first reaction was that it might go a long way to address the poor soil health situation in Ghana. This was in 2006 while he was working at Dr. Johannes Lehmann’s Lab Group as a Visiting Scientist at Cornell University, US. Edward also met Dr. Saran Sohi, currently of the UK Biochar Research Center, in 2006 and they started a working collaboration in biochar. A year later, Edward won an African Fellowship Programme Award supported by the Gatsby Foundation and traveled to the UK to spend one year working with Dr. Sohi at Rothamsted Research, in Harpeneden, UK where they studied density fractionation approaches to understand soil organic matter dynamics in soils.
Upon his return to Ghana, Edward introduced biochar to the research community through his colleagues at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Soil Research Institute (CSIR-Soil Research Institute). In collaboration with CSIR-Crops Research Institute, Kwadaso, they installed an initial field trial to study biochar. In 2008, Dr. Sohi and Edward got support from the Royal Society-Leverhulme Trust, UK under the Ghana/Tanzania-UK Fellowship for Dr. Sohi to conduct an exploratory visit to Ghana. The team introduced biochar to various institutions around Ghana such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Director-General); the United Nations Institute of Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA); the Department of Soil Science, College of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, University of Ghana; and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology—KNUST—(Kumasi, Ghana). The interest in biochar that was instilled in the research community during that initial visit has taken off and now a number of institutions and researchers in Ghana are working on biochar. In addition to institutions like CSIR and local universities, some non-governmental organizations are setting up biochar programs, including: Gbligu Ecological Farms, Walewale, Ghana and Abokobi Society of Switzerland (ASS).
Getting Biochar into the Hands of Researchers and Farmers
The research team at CSIR got its first supply of biochar in 2007 when Edward brought back eucalyptus biochar from a trip to Brazil. The biochar, provided by Dr. Beata Madari of Embrapa Solos, was used for pot trials at CSIR. After a series of promising trials, the team obtained charcoal fragments from local producers for use in field trials, but realized that they needed to find a dedicated biochar production source that could utilize agricultural wastes.
Edward started exploring production opportunities and in 2010, in collaboration with the Chemical Engineering Department of KNUST, the first biochar reactor in Ghana was built. The batch system reactor is suitable for all feedstocks and has a wide temperature range (up to 1200 degrees Celsius). The team is currently making biochar from this prototype out of rice husk, wood shavings, and sawdust and plans to use other feedstocks such as cocoa husk, maize stover, coconut fiber, and oil palm bunches.
ALFATRIO Ltd of Kumasi, Ghana manufactured the batch system reactor and won a national bid from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with governmental support from the Ministry of Environment Science and Technology (MEST) to manufacture ten more reactors for ten communities in Ghana. The units will be sent to communities in the next month to accelerate research and technology transfer at small farms. Smallholder farmers will be trained in biochar production using available feedstocks like rice husk, rice straw, sawdust, maize stover, and cocoa husk. The selected communities are comprised of groups of 10 – 20 subsistence farmers with smallholdings of 0.5 to 2 hectare (ha) per family. Farmers are supported by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture Extension Agents and are actively engaged in collaborative testing of Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) options emerging from CSIR-Soil Research Institute as well as international donor and NGO projects. Some of the selected communities are peri-urban and the vegetables will be the main crops cultivated for the urban market. CSIR-Soil Research Institute will be working with these communities to ensure that smallholder farmers derive the maximum benefits from using biochar. Additional information on biochar will be disseminated through radio using the local FM Stations. As the technology develops, biochar will be sold to increase rural income and offer rural employment, but future funding is needed for wider dissemination.
The First Biochar Workshop in Ghana
Continuing on the joint collaboration effort for research on biochar, the CSIR-Soil Research Institute hosted the first biochar workshop in Ghana in early February 2011, entitled The Prospects of Biochar Technology in Ghana. Forty participants drawn from the universities, National Agricultural Research Institutes, tertiary institutions, and the media attended the workshop, including Dr. Sohi who gave the keynote presentation. In a welcome message, the Director of CSIR-Soil Research Institute, Dr. Joseph Opoku Fening, highlighted the complimentary role of biochar in improving soil health and the need to adopt integrated soil fertility management technologies to increase incomes of the smallholder farmer. He highlighted the upcoming program of outreach to local villages through the installation of biochar units.
Edward and his team reported on ongoing biochar field studies in Kumasi, where a control treatment, five inorganic fertilizer combinations (P30K60, N60 P30K60, N120P30K60, N180P30K60and N240P30K60) and four biochar rates + inorganic fertilizer (2 t ha-l Biochar + N60 P30K60, 4 t ha-l Biochar + N60 P30K60, 6 t ha-l Biochar + N60 P30K60 and 8 t ha-l Biochar + N60 P30K60) were assessed for their effect on soil moisture storage, soil available nitrogen, and okra plants. They found that the biochar + inorganic fertilizers increased fresh okra yield by 100% compared to inorganic fertilizers. Biochar amendments increased soil moisture storage by 14% as compared to sole inorganic fertilizer rates.
Looking Ahead at Future Initiatives
With the installation of the ten units and ongoing field trials, the research teams expect to have a great deal more data and field studies on which to base assessments. The work group, through collaborative proposal development with advanced research institutes and universities like UKBRC; Cornell University, USA; Pro-Natura International, France etc., is looking to secure funding for further biochar utilization in Ghana. They hope to make CSIR-Soil Research Institute, a center of excellence for biochar research and development in Africa.
2 t/ha Biochar + N60P30K60 yielded 11.6t/ha okra yield; all photos courtesy of Edward Yeboah.
Control plot with no biochar yielded 5t/ha okra
Conference attendees (Edward is second from the right in the white shirt)