From Agrimagined to Agreality in Africa

Nature finds ways of directing resources to where they are needed most, but if your eyes are not tuned to see these processes, they get taken for granted. Bryan Ollier has spent years honing this observational skill and has gained many lessons of how the natural world shares its nutrients. His recent work has sought to take these lessons and use them to make agriculture work with these natural processes, rather than against them. 

Ollier has been partnering with Joseph Kinuthia of Kenya through their organization Agrimagined since 2021 to find innovative ways to tackle the challenges that farmers face in rural Africa. The bulk of the work that they have done is in Kenya and Ghana. Farmers in these countries rely on rainfall to irrigate their crops, but they face long droughts and intense rainy seasons. These farmers also cannot afford chemical fertilizers or pesticides. These adversities make it difficult to grow productive, nutrient-rich crops.

Finding a way to generate healthy soils without the use of chemical fertilizers has been at the forefront of Agrimagine’s mission. Their proposed fertilizer alternative will harness the power of rock dust and Agbiotics (a biological product for soils) combined with animal manure to create nutrient-rich soils. Kinuthia lives in the Nyeri region of Kenya. This region is home to Africa’s second tallest mountain, Mt. Kenya, where there is a quarry that can provide basalt rock dust for his farm. A small building has been built to bag the rock dust, called Vumbi Mavuno, near the quarry. At Kinuthia’s multi use vegetable and livestock farm, applying the rock dust taken from the nearby quarry has yielded crops with higher drought and pest resistance.

Remineralization: for soils and beyond. 

Agrimagined’s utilization of rock dust extends into other practices as well. Ollier’s eye for ecosystem nutrient delegation led him to test the addition of rock powders in livestock drinking water. After witnessing elephants balance out their diets by stirring up muddied ponds and drinking the silty contents, Kinuthia’s farm now offers a rock dust-enriched water to supplement the cattle and poultry drinking water. Ollier also does the same for his dogs back home in England. The animals are free to choose which bucket to drink from. Able to smell the minerals in the water, they often choose to drink from the bucket with rock dust, suggesting that when they need minerals they respond accordingly (a behavior observed in other animals, including monkeys). 

Overview of Mount Kenya and surrounding area

At Kinuthia’s farm, his cows have fared much better than his neighbors in drought season, when the grass is dried out and sparse. Agrimagined believes this is the result of the higher nutrient intake Kinuthia’s cattle receive from the rock dust water. The poultry operation at Kinuthia’s farm have also seen very positive results. The chickens are more productive than those from other nearby farms, and the eggs themselves are more nutritious and flavorful, with deep orange yolks. With the addition of rock dust in the drinking water, the animals went from producing 50 eggs a day to now over 60 a day. 

The benefits of rock dust on crops also extend beyond the nutrient density. Ollier has observed that the rock dust has promoted pest resistance in two distinct ways. First, he has found that pests target diseased plants and disease targets the weakest plants. When the crops are strong and healthy, not only are pests deterred, but when there is an infestation, the crops can recover. The other benefit Ollier has found is that caterpillars and other plant-eating insects are deterred by rock dust when it is present on the plants they intend to eat. As explained in our Rock Dust Primer:

In the long term, the silica in rock dust creates hardier plants and trees that will not be vulnerable to insects. Spraying very fine rock dust directly onto plants and trees helps to quickly save crops from insect infestations. The rock dust gets into the segments of the insects, hurts their waxy covering and disables them. This takes care of an infestation without wiping out all the insects. Rock dust scattered around the garden helps protect it from slugs. It’s important to remember that insects have a very important role. They are nature’s recyclers, looking out for weaker plants to break down. This is a natural solution to maintain insect balance.

Global rock dust trials conducted by Agrimagined and Bryan Ollier

Bryan Ollier has also been testing an important hypothesis regarding the efficacy of sedimentary rock dust in comparison to volcanic basalt. An initial trial comparing slate and siltstone varieties to basalt in 2022 was abandoned due to extreme weather. A huge drought prevented the rock dust from achieving its potential. 

Left: Chicken drinking water with rock dust. Right: Nakuyo with eggs from the chickens

Ollier is currently working on a project testing two additional rock dust varieties on potatoes in England. Agrimagined is also helping run a trial in Ghana testing a similar hypothesis. In Ghana, they are testing three different rock dust varieties, similarly comparing sedimentary and basalt varieties, and also adding poultry manure to one of the test plots. By testing these hypotheses, Ollier seeks to determine whether the sedimentary rocks provide similar positive outcomes and whether the poultry manure additive yields even more productive crops, proving poultry manure has the secondary benefit of offering an opportunity for alternate income for poultry farmers who can now sell their manure. 

If slate and siltstone prove productive, it will allow communities far from volcanic rock the ability to source natural fertilizer, and thereby avoid the need for costly and fossil fuel-burning transportation. 

Another trial is going on at the Kyekyewere Agroforestry School in the central region of Ghana has planted test control plots of cocoa trees to test the efficacy of Agrimagine’s RevivaSoil rock dust fertilizer on the crops. The seedlings were grown in a greenhouse before being transplanted at the cocoa plantation to replace cocoa shade trees. Results from the case study showed the RevivaSoil-treated seedlings were healthier and larger than their untreated counterparts. 

On top of remineralizing the soil with rock dust, Ollier hopes to further boost the soil’s nitrogen content. For this, he has helped implement the use of agbiotics. Agbiotics are a concoction of microbes that absorb nitrogen from the air, and mobilize the potassium and phosphorus in the soil. The microbes have also been shown to control disease within the crops. In Ghanaian demonstration plots, agbiotics have shown to be effective in promoting the health of cocoa and mango crops. Another source of nitrogen can be from animal manure. Kinuthia’s farm also includes a chicken coop, and the natural fertilizer Kinuthia and Ollier are working on will harness chicken manure as a nitrogen soil supplement. 

Agrimagined tackles issues plaguing sub-saharan agriculture beyond soils

In 2022 Kinuthia visited Bryan Ollier’s farm in the U.K., where he was struck by the use of ponds to store excess rainwater to irrigate fields in times of drought. They are working on a project to dig a nearby pond on Kinuthia’s farm to store and pump water. The first consideration was that the pond needed to be outside electric fencing to allow elephants and other animals to utilize the water resource. If the pond were inside the fence, the barriers would be trampled by thirsty elephants. Second, the project would need to rely on solar power to run a pump from the pond to his fields.

Something that Ollier feels sets farmers in Kenya back is a reduced motivation, specifically amongst young people, to enter the agricultural sector. A lack of hands-on education and innovation can make farming seem like an uninteresting career path.  An important and effective way to train and motivate young new farmers is to give them hands-on experience at a working farm. He is working to create a lasting partnership between the regional agricultural institute and Kinuthia, so that Kinuthia’s farm can demonstrate regenerative and productive farming practices which utilize the use of natural remineralization. The students from the agricultural institute have been frequently visiting Kinuthia to see the strategies that he and Ollier have been implementing and aim to further this relationship. They hope that Kinuthia’s farm can set an example not only for prospective farmers but also for current operations hoping to naturally increase their productivity by mimicking nature with a focus on minerals. 

Workers packing recycled tires with dirt to create the walls of cold storage facilities.

Another way to make farming more appealing is to make it a little less backbreaking, says Ollier. Increasing the mechanization of farming is an important way to do that. Perhaps the hardest manual labor done on a farm is manual hoeing. Ollier is working on making a battery-powered manual weeding and hoeing machine. The hope is to have it simple enough to be easily repaired and to keep it relatively inexpensive. An electric engine will make it simpler to maintain, and minimize carbon usage. The batteries could be charged using solar power. Farmers would be able to transition from hand tools to this smaller, simpler machine, increasing their productivity without having to jump to bigger, more complicated tractors. Ollier hopes to develop this machine in the next five years, and eventually make attachments available that can plant seeds, spread natural fertilizers, or spray water.

The latest important challenge to farmers that Agrimagined hopes to address is finding ways to make the supply chain more farmer-friendly. Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face the major challenge of being unable to store their harvest properly. This results in a major loss of income, as crops decay before they can reach the market and prevents the benefit of nutritious foods from reaching people. They also have no control of the price, having to accept the buying price of traders. Food waste is a global problem. If food waste could be cut in half, the world could feed an additional 1 billion people. 

Agrimagined aims to develop a solution to these problems through the engineering of simple, effective, community storage centers. These cold storage facilities can be built using mostly inexpensive and locally available materials. The two-foot wide insulating walls are to be built using recycled tires packed full of soil, and will be roughly two meters high. The structure will have a simple thatched and insulated timber roof. The internal walls will be painted with antimicrobial paint, and the air cooling system will be solar-powered. Finally, the ripening chemical ethylene will be drawn from the air using a small unit, further slowing the ripening process. 

Being able to store harvested crops locally affords the farmers the time to process their produce as well, increasing the value added, and further increasing farmer income. The sustainable interventions proposed by Agrimagined will help create food security and income for farmers in sub-saharan Africa. These interventions are the result of active and collaborative partnership with the farmers themselves, and serve as realistic, low cost solutions. Not only do they improve farmer outcomes, but they promote a healthy biome and planet.

Rasmus Sayre is a former volunteer for Peace Corps Madagascar. He studied Political Science and Economics at Eckerd College. In his junior year, he was shortlisted for the school’s writing excellence award, given to the handful of students showing the highest level of writing and research aptitude. Rasmus is a passionate outdoorsman and came to environmentalism through an appreciation for his time spent outside. He feels that at the intersection of socioeconomic progress and environmental protection lies our planet’s greatest challenge. Therefore, Rasmus is excited about the climate solution that Remineralization and Enhanced Rock Weathering provides and is eager to help spread the word.

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