Barley diversifies agriculture sector

Critics might have been skeptical of the idea of growing barley locally, but through a smart partnership between Namibia Breweries Limited (NBL), and AgriBusDev, an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, they proved Namibians are more than capable of growing barley successfully. Starting with only 12 hectares in 2012, they are planning to increase that to 400 in 2017.

Why would any company go through the aches and pains of planting barley for the first time in Namibia? According to Wessie van der Westhuizen, Managing Director at NBL – a subsidiary of the Ohlthaver & List (O&L) Group – they are inspired to bring alive the Group’s purpose of ‘Creating a Future, Enhancing Life’.  It is this purpose-driven outlook that gave birth to the barley story: ‘Project Kernel’, which is the inspiration behind Namibia’s home-grown beer brand, King Lager.

A challenge

At a recent press conference Van der Westhuizen said: “Six years ago, we faced a unique challenge. Our empowerment partner, EPIA, asked us ‘How can NBL add further value to the country, creating more jobs and contributing further to the growth of the economy?’ That question set our minds in motion, and we began investigating the possibility of establishing a local barley industry. Today, we – together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and government’s AgriBusDev – are pleased with our efforts of establishing a barley industry for the good of Namibia.”

Likewise, Sven Thieme, Executive Chairman of the O&L Group, commented that as a proudly Namibian company, they are committed to achieving the goals and ideals of Government’s Vision 2030 and the Harambee Prosperity Plan that addresses amongst others, unemployment and poverty alleviation. Enhancing local production and procurement is the Group’s further contribution to the national goals. “Unemployment is a national issue which affects every Namibian, and it is only in a unified spirit of camaraderie and working together to create opportunities locally that we can reverse the scourge of poverty.”

Testing the idea

Over the last six years, NBL did trials and gained valuable learnings from the process. Martin Krafft, NBL Project Manager says: “We have gained significant experience and knowledge on planting barley commercially; we know the cost drivers and key factors involved and have developed a pricing mechanism that provides a win-win situation for farmers and NBL.”

Krafft remembers how the process started. “At the beginning when we started in 2010, we approached malters and experts that supported us in selecting the right potential barley seed variants.”

In 2011, the project team planted six types of seeds in Otjozondjupa, the Kavango, Hardap, and Oshikoto. The regions showed differences in the crop performance, but the experts identified all seed types as suitable. The trials also identified German Spring Barley, which grows well in Namibia’s winter and produces a large grain, suitable for NBL’s requirements.

The second trial took place in 2012 when 24 hectares were cultivated and yielded 150 tons of barley. It showed that barley could produce one ton more per hectare than wheat, Namibia’s other winter grain crop, and with slightly lower input costs.

The company confirmed the quality of the local crop in 2013, by sending a small barley shipment for malting in Germany, after which it was reimported and used in the production of a limited-edition beer named Independence Lager which coincided with Namibia’s 23-year independence celebrations. Extensive research and product development then followed to produce NBL’s beer brand made of un-malted locally grown barley called King Lager.

As with developing any new product or service, the NBL production team invested substantially in barley trials and research before rolling out large scale barley production. NBL has, during 2016 alone, invested N$6.5 million in the barley project.

Planting and harvesting barley

AgriBusDev plants barley in Namibia at the Shadikongoro and Ndonga Linena Green Scheme farms, respectively, situated in the Kavango region. What goes into planting and harvesting barley successfully?

Krafft says: “The key to successfully growing barley is to prepare well.” Manager of the Ndonga Linena farm, Titus Andreas, says: “Production of barley is supported by production planning, the supply of fertilizer, equipment for tilling and preparing the ground, inspection of pests and pest control, harvesting, and storage.” His counterpart at Shadikongoro, Danie Marais explains: “AgriBusDev also sets up watering schedules based on inspection of the soil, as well as herbicide and fungicide treatment.”

During the preparatory step, the farmer receives the appropriate variety of barley seeds. Soil and water samples are collected from the Okavango River and the fields nearby and sent to an independent laboratory for testing. The outcome of the tests determines the composition of the fertiliser that is best suited for the crop.

While waiting for the soil and water laboratory results, the farmer, in preparation, ploughs the earth. Shadikongoro Farm Manager, Danie Marais, explains that he plants the seeds and adds fertilizer simultaneously, and then starts watering the fields.

Martin Krafft adds that during the growth phase it is a matter of maintaining and controlling the crop and applying plant treatment, where necessary.

“The planting time of barley is crucial because barley matures within four and a half months,” says Joshua Antonio, Assistant Farm Manager of Ndonga Linena Farm. Barley is a winter crop, planted early in May and harvested in October. Planting too late means that the barley will start drying before it reaches its ideal maturity age.

The crop matures in about 120 days. The farmer then stops watering the barley. It takes about one week for the barley to completely dry and turn yellow. The farmer tests the moisture content of the barley regularly. When it reaches the 12% moisture mark, it is time to start harvesting. A harvester completes the harvest of one field in approximately a single day.

The farm workers weigh the produce, and they send a test sample from each load to an independent laboratory, which measures the protein content of the harvested product. Barley used for the brewing of beer must have a protein content of between 9% and 12.5%. Once tested, the price is determined.  The user, Namibia Breweries Limited (NBL), pays a contracted price for the negotiated level of quality barley.

The impact on agriculture

NBL views small-scale farmers as a vital component of the project as this focus is likely to create the most employment, and the income will be a factor in improving the standard of living for Namibians.

Van der Westhuizen also opened the door to commercial farmers. “If they have land under irrigation, and are looking for an alternative winter crop, they can approach O&L for more information on the business model and the requirement for the crop.”

Barley increases the options for farmers when considering to grow a winter crop in Namibia.

“Apart from being used for beer,” Krafft explains, “it is a key ingredient in Vigo and other soft drinks and can be used in bread, soups, stews and salads. Moreover, barley makes for excellent animal feed.” Its versatility and nutritional value “makes barley a precious crop for Namibia.”    

Lazarus Nande, a small-scale farmer from Ndonga Linena, says: “I looked at the need of my country and asked myself whether we are self-sufficient when it comes to food production.” Through initiatives such as the barley crop, he shares, “I can place myself in a position where I am one of the producers who can feed this nation. Who else should do it, if not me?”    

NBL’s commitment to establish a flourishing barley crop in Namibia goes well beyond the business bottom line, explains van der Westhuizen. “There is a purpose we want to achieve through this – and this mission automatically and immediately benefits the people of Namibia in its totality.”

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