The soilless medium

The soilless medium

ROMA – WHEN Tebalo Sekorobele, a National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s Chemical Technologist, tested the physical and chemical properties of his horticultural growth medium, he was pleased with what he saw. His product did not only match the commercial growth medium, it was a lot better in other areas. After careful development of a growth medium aided by extensive literature studies, and many trials, Sekorobele was pleased to find that his medium could produce plants that matched commercial growth mediums in all aspects.

By the way, chemical technologists have this funny tendency to insert their noses into whatever area, including agriculture, and it allows them to use their carefully crafted skills, especially in areas that link the physical and the chemical properties and their applications. And here is the inspiration. Once in time, Sekorobele visited the gigantic Litsoamobung Farm in Mokema.

The farm is owned by one Nkunyane Hoaba, who is a NUL graduate. The farm was impressive. The farmer produced plants such as tomatoes, cabbages, and so on, from scratch. That is, he grew his own seedlings instead of buying the readymade ones. “But there was something the farmer could not make,” Sekorobele says.

“He did not produce the growth medium in which he grew the seedlings.”

“I buy the growth medium from South Africa,” the seasoned farmer told him. “And it doesn’t come cheap.” Sekorobele’s thinking was provoked. “But why should everything always have to come from South Africa?” he asked himself. He said while he could not confirm that all growth media he has seen come from South Africa, he is not aware yet, of anyone producing it on a commercial scale in Lesotho. Rather he has often seen farmers like Hoaba, either buying the readymade medium or using topsoil to produce seedlings.

Now, there is a reason why good farmers like Hoaba prefer growth media. It is light, so it reduces the burden of moving it around which is normally the case in most horticultural settings. It has high porosity, that is, it has many empty spaces within it. “That allows for free flow of water, hence nutrients, and free flow of air,” Sekorobele says. That is not all. Growth media allow for both rapid germination and rapid growth of seedlings due to them being less dense and this, in turn, allows for free movement of roots and shoots.

As a plus, growth media are normally free from insects and pests which would otherwise destroy young plants in the soil. A trained technologist, he set to find a solution. What he did is what we call reverse engineering. Some folks normally dismiss reverse engineering in favour of the novel, the cutting edge, whatever that fancy stuff means. Ask the following countries: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and very recently, albeit spectacularly, China. What is common with these countries, the Asian Tigers? They knew the value of never starting from scratch if someone has already made something valuable before them.

Instead, break that something down, study how it works and adapt it to your situation. Sounds simple? It worked for the Asian Tigers, it will soon work for Lesotho and you many live to see it! Economists like to call that strategy, catch-up economics, because it is the only way to catch up with advanced economies. Don’t start where they started, start where they are and move along. In a more humble way, Sekorobele is doing just that.
“I went to my lab and started developing an attack strategy,” he says.

“I studied the medium Nkunyane was already importing from South Africa.” Of course few people will tell you everything they used in their recipes. “So along with the analyses, I did plenty of literature review to determine not only what could be in the medium but also what alternative materials I could find locally to make a suitable low cost medium.” After a lot of testing and trials, he came up with a growth medium made from different but mostly locally available materials whose main ingredient is maize stalks and some animal manure (this had to be treated with heat to kill weeds and pests).

It also had vermiculite and a couple of other ingredients in the right quantities. He then tested PH, water retention capacity, organic matter content, content of soluble salts, bulk density, porosity and soil stability. If time allowed, he would have moved to testing a variety of nutrients. “I leave that part to someone coming behind me,” he says. But was he satisfied?

“My growth medium matched the commercial one in PH and bulk density. It beat the commercial one in content of soluble salts, organic matter content, water holding capacity and stability.” Actually, a growth media’s particles are expected to remain together during irrigation, but his media performed better here than the commercial one. It was more stable, he says. And so he has one last message for you: “We can make this stuff right here in Lesotho folks, so let’s do it,” he says. Let’s do it.

Own Correspondent

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