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Farmers turn sand into soil with low-cost spin on global technologies

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Kenyan farmers are turning breakthrough global technologies into low-cost hacks to hold back the desert, replacing engineered membranes with plastic sheets, and nanoclays with burnt crop residues, to get top yields from grounds that were previously growing nearly nothing.

In the face of a global problem of land degradation – with 90 percent of the world’s land forecast to be degraded by 2050 – Kenya’s farmers are losing yields and food at the rate of several percent a year. But they are now cashing in on a global technology race to convert dying land back to vibrant growth. 

This has created patented technologies such as Liquid Nanoclay, now transforming Arizonian deserts into posh green fairways and United Arab Emirates’ sands into fruit oases. It has also borne Subsurface Water Retention, by laying specialty papers under tracts of sandy soil to retain water, and hydration bags to sit within the soil slowly leaking water around plants’ roots.

These technologies remain completely beyond the reach of African smallholders, financially, but now sees them developing local versions of the same scientific tricks – for a few hundred Kenyan shillings (less than $10), instead of millions.

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Farmers in arid Ganze at Kenya’s coast, are now getting 200 kilograms of Okra from a quarter of an acre that previously bore almost nothing by combining the science of nanoclay and subsurface water retention, with plastic sheets and biochar.

Their biggest problem is that water passes straight through sand, which covers 13 percent of land south of the Sahara, and loses water and nutrients as quickly as it absorbs them – often  in a few hours compared to two to three days in fine clay soils, which is not enough time for plants to absorb them.

To tackle this, Subsurface Water Retention technology uses special-purpose excavators to dig one-and-half metre-deep trenches and move all the soil to lay the high-tech paper membrane underneath, before returning the soil on top.

This creates a zone of soil where the water is captured at the base.

In Ganze farmers have taken this idea, helped by Plant Village, and are simply digging out the sandy soil, lining the trenches with PVC plastic sheets and then filling them back with the sand.

This prevents the water from being drained and holds it for the plants, but leaves the sand empty of nutrients. Which is where the nanoclay technology comes in.

Nanoclay is a breakthrough that followed lessons from the River Nile flooding and depositing nutritious clay particles drained from the East African Rift. This made the Egyptian Nile Delta amongst the world’s most agriculturally prosperous plots of land. 

However, manufacturing this imitation river sediment is expensive, meaning it costs at least Sh1.2m an acre to convert sand into grass using nanoclay for projects such as the Coyote Wash Golf Course.

But research has shown biochar made by burning plant materials such as leftover maize stalks can also replace the mineral carbon and nutrients held in river sediment and carried by floods – causing yield jumps of 50 percent or more.

“Since we added biochar to our farms, we are earning three to four times more than our previous okra harvests, all the while using no fertiliser”, said Emmanuel Katana, chairperson of Kaya Godoma farm.

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Thus with plastic sheeting and burnt crop stalks, Kenyan farmers are finding answers that are converting sterile soil into productive farming. Their breakthroughs look tiny on the ground, but could end hunger, and transform food security, farmer incomes in Africa. 

For when farmers can double their crop yields in a region of Kenya as synonymous with crop failure and starvation as Ganze, they have delivered a beacon for what is possible when big-brained, expensive scientific ideas can be turned into cheap, practical solutions. 

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