Baking Day

Last week I said I was going to experiment by making a cake I often make at home to go in my lunchbox, the experimental part being that I would be using only the heat of the sun to bake it. In the event I’m pleased to say that it was a success although the day was not as sunny as it might have been so the solar oven only reached about 110° instead of the 150° I had hoped for. As a result I had to guess the timing – if I had opened the solar box to test the cake I would have lost the oven heat, so instead of about 1hr 15minutes as in my electric oven, I left the cake in for over 3 hours and the result was perfectly acceptable although slightly “heavier” than at home.

Salim ready to put the mixture in the oven

Salim the baker about to put the mixture in the solar oven

In it goes

….with big brother posing for the camera. (The sideways “V” sign is very common with the young boys here to show they are cool!)

Oumar about to cut the first piece

Oumar about to make the first cut

The recipe is as follows if you wish to try it yourself – very simple and makes a cake which keeps well, freezes well too, and is delicious with butter!

Weetabix Loaf
Mix together 4 Weetabix, 1pint milk, 1lb sugar and 1lb mixed dried fruit and leave to soak overnight. Then mix in 2 beaten eggs and 1lb flour and divide between 2 loaf tins. Bake at 150° for about 1hr 15 minutes.

You could try substituting cherries or apricots for the mixed fruit – as the mangoes are nearly ready I will be trying them in the next mix.

One of the regular jobs at MyFarm is the production of biochar – charcoal used as a soil conditioner and fertiliser. Production is based on a process which has been recorded as having been carried out thousands of years ago in the Amazon Basin, where islands of rich, fertile soils called terra preta (“dark earth”) were created by indigenous people. Anthropologists speculate that cooking fires and kitchen middens along with deliberate placing of charcoal in soil resulted in soils with high fertility and carbon content, often containing shards of broken pottery. These soils continue to “hold” carbon today and remain so nutrient rich that in parts of Brazil they have been dug up and sold as potting soil. This carbon resists degradation in soils for thousands of years and is found in soils around the world where it helps depleted soils retain water and nutrients. By making farm land more fertile for longer it helps discourage deforestation and can improve soil fertility, stimulating plant growth, which then consumes more CO2 in a positive feedback effect.

Biochar is fine grained and extremely porous with a large surface area which is very effective at retaining water and water soluble nutrients and is produced by heating agricultural waste in a low oxygen environment to prevent combustion. At MyFarm the process is a fairly low tech and time consuming operation using a simple kiln made from an oil drum. Dry twigs and other garden waste is broken or cut into small lengths and packed tightly inside a metal drum until the drum is full, at which point it is turned upside down inside a slightly larger drum.

Baboucarr cutting twigs for biochar

Baboucarr cutting twigs for biochar

The inner drum packed full

The inner drum packed full


Inner and outer drums showing the difference in size

Ready to fill the fuel gap

The small drum inverted inside the larger ready to fill the gap with fuel

Ready for topping with mango leaves

Ready for topping with mango leaves

The space in between the two drums is now packed with more twigs for fuel topped off by a layer of mango leaves which are lit and the kiln is closed with a chimney funnel. The smoke from the chimney normally soon disappears to be replaced by flame and hot exhaust gas which in a more sophisticated system might be used to generate electricity. From experience it seems we get best results if all the contents are of a similar size and our small kiln takes 20 – 30 minutes before pyrolisis is complete.

.........and the lid goes on

The lid goes on and we are soon cooking!

After 30 minutes, this is the result

30 minutes later this is the resulting biochar

At this stage the chimney is removed from the kiln and water is poured on to douse any remaining fire before the contents are tipped out and pounded to a powder to be incorporated in the seedbed. This soil conditioner will not only help to retain water but will also add potash and help increase the pH of the soil.

Other benefits of biochar appear to include

Reduced fertilizer inputs: Biochar can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, resulting in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from fertilizer manufacture.

Reduced N2O and CH4 emissions: Biochar can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4)—two potent greenhouse gases—from agricultural soils.

Enhanced soil microbial life: Biochar can increase soil microbial life, resulting in more carbon storage in soil.

Reduced emissions from feedstocks: Converting agricultural and forestry waste into biochar can avoid CO2 and CH4 emissions otherwise generated by the natural decomposition or burning of the waste.

Energy generation: The heat energy—and also the bio-oils and synthesis gases—generated during biochar production can be used to displace carbon positive energy from fossil fuels.

Saturday in the garden

For most farmers in the Gambia, working on the land means long hours of repetitive manual labour. There are a few exceptions like our neighbour, Radville Farms, a larger commercial operation with about 30 ha adjoining MyFarm and more land elsewhere. They have a number of tractors and implements including a large modern John Deere which occasionally passes through the mango orchard on our boundary on the way to collect fuel from the diesel tank. Radville Farms sounds very English but I believe is an Indian owned business as it is known locally as “The Indian Garden”. Each morning around 7am I hear the chatter of the farm labourers going to work, mostly on foot, with the occasional bicycle or motorbike, and at night they return again, with some of the ladies carrying bundles of sticks on their heads.

The operation here at MyFarm however is not mechanised and is typical of many with a variety of crops grown on a 2ha plot. At present we have lettuces, tomatoes and cucumbers, cabbages, peppers, pumpkins, a few small leeks and some local green leaf crops, all of which have to be watered twice a day by hand.

The pumpkin patch

The pumpkin patch


Tomatoes and cabbages – note the mulch of mango leaves to keep the weeds down and retain moisture

Normally there are three or four of the gardeners busy watering, but on Saturday and Sunday one of them has the day off. Yesterday, one of the gardeners who should have been working failed to arrive – he has been up country for a couple of days visiting a sick relative and it seems is still there -, and as our cook also has Saturdays off, Jarrai who would normally be working in the garden, was on kitchen duty so we were rather short staffed. As a result I spent most of the day from 7am to 6pm carrying water in two watering cans. There are taps at strategic points in the garden, but much of the time the pressure is too low to use a hosepipe or sprinkler for watering so the cans are filled by dipping in to plastic barrels which are constantly supplied from a network of mixed hosepipes and rigid plastic water pipe/electrical conduit. In some areas there are lengths of flat plastic hose with pin holes at regular intervals for trickle irrigation, but again the low water pressure is a problem and it seems that the plants nearest the tap get more than the ones at the far end of the pipe. I am trying to improve this system by replacing broken pipes and digging rigid pipes underground where they cross the pathways. This had been done already in some places but the pipes were only just beneath the surface and punctured easily by the sharp stones and seashells which form the path. I have dug some of the trenches rather deeper and bedded the pipes in sand so hope they will now last longer without leaking.

Apart from keeping the garden watered yesterday we also had to accommodate a visit by someone from the Ministry of Education to see how we use logic games on iPads as a teaching tool for the children, the usual drop in visitors and Saturday computer classes, and a tour by a bus load of schoolchildren. We host quite a number of school visits – this was the second one in a week, and we have another group next Wednesday. It’s a good opportunity to try to educate the younger generation about deforestation – at present much of the cooking in the Gambia is done using charcoal and as a result the bush is being cut down at an alarming rate. Here at MyFarm, apart from the small business training, we also demonstrate environmentally sustainable methods of cooking using solar powered ovens,

Solar oven

Solar oven – basically a double glazed insulated box which can reach 150 C using only the heat of the sun

and parabolic reflectors, and the production of biogas from pig manure and rotting fruit. Tomorrow is a public holiday so as part of my holiday entertainment for the children I have agreed to demonstrate my culinary skills by baking a fruit loaf. I’ve seen cakes baked in the solar boxes but have not yet tried it myself so hope it will work. Keep your fingers crossed!

New Home

The last week has been very busy. Work is continuing on the new shop/ food preparation building in order to get the roof on before the rains come, so we have ten builders living on site besides the normal staff and trainees.P1000472Last week we also hosted a 5-day training course for another nine young budding entrepreneurs from the North Bank Region. On Thursday morning having spent the days prior learning to make jams and soaps, and the rudiments of business, they were taken to Banjul each with a basket of goods produced on the farm – soaps, lip balm, body lotion and jams – the quantity of each chosen by the trainee, and set loose for a couple of hours to try their sales skills. On their return they were buzzing with excitement having achieved different levels of success, but all of them having sold some of their wares and had a taste of what they will need to do to make a success of their training. Despite what they had been told about starting a conversation to build a relationship with the customer it seems that at least one of them opened her sales pitch with “Buy my soap”! Coming from a society where the art of selling is so highly developed I still find it odd when I am accosted by a street vendor with such a basic approach, but that is quite common here.MyFarm_184


My new home

I have been in my new round house accommodation for a week and now have a fully functioning flush toilet, wash basin and shower. The volume of water from the shower is not very great as apparently I’m connected to a distant branch of the water supply, so I supplement it with a bucket and dipper but it is grand to cool off after a hot dusty day in the garden. I’m still waiting for flyscreens for the windows, but so far haven’t been troubled by any mosquitos in the house as I keep the windows closed and have been told the screens should be here in about a week. I’m looking forward to being able to open the windows at night for a cool breeze although the nights are not too hot at present. I still have no electricity although the lights and plug sockets are already in place – it seems that the supply cable was laid underground last rainy season and has since been attacked by termites so will have to be replaced. At this time of year the ground is like concrete so I’ll have to wait a while for the trench to be dug. Again this is no great hardship as I can charge my phone and laptop during the day from a socket in one of the other buildings, and have a small solar powered lamp which is adequate for using the shower at night. MyFarm_186 MyFarm_187As we have had a training here on site we have not been on the road with a school visit this week so I have spent a lot of time on the basic garden chores. Some of the pathways here are flanked by long borders of lemon grass and salvias and I have been forking around them to let air and water in to the roots. Quite a time consuming task as at first the fork wont penetrate the hard ground so I have to water well then leave to soak in, then dig a little, then repeat the process until I can get to a fork depth. The salvias have grown rather leggy and many of them have rotten stems where the termites have been busy so I have pruned some of them back pretty hard to stimulate new growth from the base. It seems to be working, and if it is successful there are plenty more will get the same treatment. The gardeners here value the food crops more and don’t seem to know a great deal about ornamental, but it seems that in this climate most things regenerate fairly quickly if they are provided with water. The lemon grass borders which I have tackled so far and which only ten days ago were dry yellow tufts have turned into luxuriant green clumps. I guess everything will change when the rains arrive.

Stage 1

Stage 1


Stage 2


Stage 3

We have several hives of bees here and a couple of nights ago Lamin who works in the garden by day came back at night to inspect them. It seems to be the practice here to open the hives by torchlight after dark as the African bees are said to be more aggressive than their European cousins, and as a result of his work we have been enjoyed honey with our breakfast this morning. The ladies have been busy processing two buckets full of honeycomb, some cut into rich golden squares for sale as comb honey, and the remainder uncapped and left in a sieve overnight to allow the liquid honey to run out. It is a lot easier to separate in this warm climate than I remember from my beekeeping days at home. The honey was a real treat but this afternoon when we were working among the bananas down near the pond, three of my colleagues beat a hasty retreat due to the attention of some bees no doubt annoyed by the loss of their honey!