Southern Africa Vetiver Network Newsletter

August 1997 Number 2


Rehabilitation with Vetiver

Carol Knoll

Ecolink's Vetiver Grass Programme

David Jobson

"It's just like growing shallots...!"

Experiences with vetiver grass in a soil and water conservation programme for communal farmers in Zaka district, Zimbabwe -- Soren Dreyer

Letters to the Editor

A Final Word


Duncan Hay

Institute of Natural Resources
University of Natal

Private Bag X01,

Scottsville, 3209

South Africa

Tel: 0331- 460796
Fax: 0331- 460895

[email protected]

Rehabilitation with Vetiver

Carol Knoll


(This article originally appeared in Vol.2 No.2 of African Mining. The Editor acknowledges African Mining and Carol Knoll with thanks)

There is substantial evidence that Vetiver grass offers a simple, inexpensive solution to the chronic environmental problem of soil erosion and that the grass has a role to play in the reclamation of wastelands with extreme soil conditions.

African Mining spoke to Dick Grimshaw of the Vetiver Network, on his recent visit to South Africa, about the characteristics of the grass and the feasibility of its use in the sphere of mining rehabilitation - and elicited comment from both Tony Tantum of Specialised Soil Stabilisation in Howick who has worked with Vetiver for a number of years, and Mark Berry, De Beers Group Ecologist who conducted trials with Vetiver on kimberlite spoils.

Vetiver is a very tough, erect grass with a stiff stem and a vast, finely structured root system which forms a solid mat. The root system normally reaches depths of between 2-3m which makes the plant both drought tolerant and very difficult to dislodge. The National Academy of Sciences in the USA studied Vetiver for invasive properties and declared it to be safe. Although it flowers, it seldom sets seed and if it does the seed is sterile. The only way it can be propagated is through the breaking up of clumps and replanting.

Australian soil conservationist and authority on Vetiver, Paul Truong, who accompanied Grimshaw on his visit to South Africa, and has trialed the grass in mining application said, in a recent paper, that his research in Australia over the last eight years had established that, when adequately supplied with N and P nutrients and soil moisture, Vetiver could tolerate a wide range of adverse soil conditions, including :

Grimshaw pointed out that it was necessary to use the correct technique for Vetiver hedge establishment, and that these hedges served to slow down runoff, reducing its power to erode and allowing it to infiltrate into the soil. Grimshaw explained that the root system could penetrate hard material, allowing more water into the lower soil horizons which was important for the long term survival of the grass and also meant that water could be put into the face of a slimes dam, making it easier for other grasses to establish and stabilise the structure.

Tony Tantum started his soil stabilisation business in South Africa, after he was commissioned to do a feasibility study on Vetiver by a group of consulting engineers and found that its was viable commercially - in the areas of soil erosion prevention and water conservation. In 1991/2, he did trials on the President Brand gold mine in Welkom that proved that Vetiver would grow in slimes. He set up a Vetiver network in Ghana for the World Bank and has sent the grass all over Africa. De Beers consulted him on the hedgerow planting technique and he supplied material for their trials on kimberlite spoils.

De Beers has been involved with trials on both tailings dumps and slimes dams, at several different sites and Mark Berry comments that Vetiver has been found to have all the necessary attributes for self-sustainable growth on kimberlite spoils. It has been found to grow vigorously, containing runoff and arresting erosion - and creating an ideal micro-habitat for the establishment of indigenous grass species. Berry continues that it has proved extremely successful on kimberlite fines at Cullinan where slopes of 35 degrees are being upheld. He concludes that the species is likely to play an increasingly important role in rehabilitation and, as such, nurseries are being established at several mines.

Grimshaw and Truong are hoping that SA will host the International Vetiver Conference in the year 2000, after the success of the 1996 Conference in Thailand, because of Africa's need in the sphere of soil conservation.


Ecolink's Vetiver Grass Programme (April - July 1997)

David Jobson

A couple of nights ago I dropped into the 'local' and was introduced to a group of fellow cyclists from sundry parts who had descended on the Lowveld for the 15th old Mutual Jock Cycle Tour. Before I could open my mouth the landlord introduced me as the 'Vetiver man' and he and another customer began to laud the virtues of this remarkable grass. However, as our dynamic co-ordinator also haunts this part of the world it is not surprising that hardly a drinking soul has gone untouched by the message! (Dynamic? - hardly. And I promise, I don't touch the stuff - Tony Tantum is my witness! However, I can recommend the 'local' - Gianni's - in White River. Hopefully this bit of unsolicited publicity will get me a free meal. Ed.)'I phoned the optician last week for an appointment. Although I had never met him he called me back to say he'd been retrieving Vetiver information off the Internet and could I bring him some leaflets! He did eventually get around to testing my eyes. So, by fair means or foul, including some local press coverage (English and Afrikaans), a local radio item (in Siswati), and formal and informal workshops, Vetiver awareness has invaded the Lowveld!

For one person with no agricultural credentials to make a serious impact in four months was quite a tall order. Fortunately the programme is based at EcoLink, an Environmental Education organisation established by Dr Sue Hart which has been working with traditionally disadvantaged communities in the Lowveld since 1985. Furthermore, EcoLink has been working with Vetiver since 1990 and planting with community groups and individuals for the past four years. A small nursery provides planting material and agronomist Brian Beck has been available to advise. Hence the task of selling the grass to community leaders and key individuals in agriculture, roads, water affairs, mines and forestry has been a little less formidable.

Four full-day workshops and four Vetiver sessions within other programmes have introduced the grass to 246 individuals, 120 of whom are in positions to influence others - both groups and institutions. Our programme made use of local interests and expertise including Andrew Hall of Dickon Hall (essential oil production) and Johan Swart of Soil Erosion Control involved in propagation and commercial bank stabilisation. Over the period of the programme over 30 different plantings have taken place (albeit small scale) and have include community nurseries, clinics, farm erosion control, and individual gardens. Many more of the workshop participants have promised to plant at the beginning of the summer rains (September/ October) and I hope to be following up on these good intentions.

The focus of the programme has been the soil erosion control and water retention qualities of the plant. We are well aware of the small scale farmer's resistance to a plant that does not show any immediate financial return, as was reported in a very recent programme of ''Farming World' on the BBC World Service. The farmers, spotlighted in this programme, were examining the relative merits of four different vegetative barriers. Vetiver came last as not providing any commercial return by comparison with sugar cane for example. In Mpumalanga there is considerable public awareness of soil erosion - bridges swept away, roads turned into dongas, rivers of mud and the very real problems associated with a thunderous downpoor which can sweep all in front of it and destroy a carefully nurtured garden plot in a trice. Nevertheless, soil erosion is nobodies baby! The private individual has always seen it as a part of government's responsibility even though there is little evidence of anything being done at local level. I believe we have started making inroads into this article of faith and also demonstrate that bank and soil stabilisation can be a serious income generator for the small (and not so small) entrepreneur. Understandably, the commercial aspects of the plant have generated the most interest. Mpumalanga has great opportunities for Vetiver business as those into essential oil production and bank stabilisation are aware. Even now demand outstrips supply and awareness raising has only just begun!

The four month Vetiver Network funded project has been extended for another month thanks to Dickon Hall of Nelspruit, while we seek financial support to continue this work and pursuade those in the mining, forestry, water, roads and the oil business that a little money spent now will reap considerable benefits relatively soon for the individual, society and the environment.

David Jobson

Coordinator: EcoLink Vetiver Grass Programme,P O Box 727, White River, 1240

David Jobson is a British volunteer on a two year contract with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). VSO enables men and women to work alongside people in poorer countries in order to share skills, build capabilities, and promote international understanding and action, in pursuit of a more equitable world. Ed)



Letters to the Editor

Vetiver in Zaka District, South-Eastern Zimbabwe

(See previous article)

In The Vetiver Newsletter # 17 (TVN) I have with much interest read about your efforts to establish a regional Vetiver network. Through this letter I hope to become a member and receive the regional newsletter.

Please let me tell you a bit about the background for this application: for the past 2.5 years I've been working for a Danish NGO called MS-Zimbabwe which is operating in various fields of development all over Zimbabwe. I have a MSc in Geography from the University of Copenhagen, and my area of responsibility is a small district in the south-eastern part of the country, where I am attached to the local district council as Conservation Advisor. As such, my role is to coordinate a conservation programme which involves the council and the different ministries involved with natural resource management.

Zaka District has a population of 200,000, who are mainly African small-holder farming families. Soil erosion is a major environmental problem in this mountainous and semi-arid area. For 4 years now soil erosion has been addressed using vetiver grass contour hedges as part of the soil conservation programme that also involves tree planting, agroforestry, mechanical contouring, gully reclamation and rainwater harvesting. The response has been very positive and the demand for Vetiver is now much higher than the supply. Vetiver contouring is much easier to apply than mechanical contouring, and the control of erosion even better. Our approach is based on small-scale community or farmer managed nurseries.

Through the past 1.5 years we have tried to link up with other NGOs in this part of the country and further links and exchanges of experience with people from other parts of Zimbabwe and other parts of this region would be highly valuable. As you indicate in the first newsletter we still have to learn one or two things about the grass and how to apply it in the most proper way, and this opportunity for regional networking is therefore most welcome.

In the future, and through taking this initiative, it is my hope to mobilize my local colleagues to participate in the network so that this link to the region does not disappear when the donor leaves. (Letter shortened. Ed.)

Soren Dreyer, Conservation Advisor, MS-Zimbabwe, P O Box 229, Zaka, Zimbabwe.



It is encouraging to note the district's success in applying vetiver for soil conservation purposes. I recently visited a rural area of Zululand (also mountainous and quite arid) where the Institute had previously been involved in the promotion of vetiver applications as part of an Independent Development Trust funded job creation programme. The Institute's last involvement in the project was 4 years ago. It appeared to me that little or no vetiver planting had taken place since then and that small scale farmers, although aware of vetiver, seemed confused as to what soil and water conservation benefits might accrue through its use. Also, except in privately driven woodlot production, agricultural extension appeared to be non-existent. The point I am trying to make and one that comes across in your letter is the importance of maintaining links and leaving behind a sustaining management and information/ education system beyond the project's duration..

Responding more generally, the response from interested individuals in Zimbabwe to the establishment of a regional network has been most encouraging. Thanks to Soren, and to Messrs M N Harrison (14 Ruth Taylor Rd, Gunhill, Harare) T G Conolly (P O Box 762, Bulawayo) and M C Pott of Masvingo for your letters. (Ed.)


A Zambian Champion

May I first congratulate you for being appointed coordinator for the vetiver Network in Southern Africa. May I also commend you for producing the first newsletter, which unfortunately I did not get a copy of, but nonetheless the achievement is worth noting.

My name is Reynolds K Shula. I am currently the National Coordinator, Vetiver Grass Promotion, in Zambia. I have been in this position since August 1994. My portfolio includes, among others, coordinating all activities related to the acquisition and dissemination of information related to Vetiver grass utilisation techniques and technologies, and carrying out training for both staff and farmers.

I would like, on behalf of the Zambian government and vetiver grass users in Zambia, to register that we will be interested in participating in the Southern African Network and would actively contribute to ensure that the network does not fail.

I look forward to hearing from you especially to learn how best I could contribute to the next edition of the Southern Africa Newsletter.

Reynolds K Shula, National Coordinator Vetiver Promotion, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Mulungushi House, Independence House, P O Box 50291, Lusaka, Zambia.

I apologise that you were left off the list of contacts. We are acutely aware that as we start up there are numerous individuals and organisations with interests in vetiver that we know nothing about. We have to rely on members of the network supplying us with these details.

How you can contribute to the network and newsletter (and this is aimed at all members)? By promoting vetiver applications in your area of influence and responsibility; by contributing articles (both technical and non-technical) on your experiences using vetiver; by distributing the newsletter further; and by developing innovative ideas for both networking and applications. (Ed.)


Vetiver - a case of over-hype?

As a professional conservationist, I greet the launch of your newsletter VETIVER. Any move towards biological methods of resource conservation must be welcomed. But may I wave a flag of caution? I have rubbed shoulders with the vigorous promotion of Vetiver over the last decade in several African countries as well as in India, Indonesia and the Philippines - and have been struck by the discrepancy between farmer adoption (generally low, especially resource poor smallholders) and the sometimes extravagant claims by the Vetiver lobby regarding its efficacy.

That Vetiver grass does have specific merits is without doubt. But a number of these are its simultaneous undoing. Sterile? Yes, but his means time-consuming and costly planting of splits! Non-competitive? OK, but as a consequence, weeds invade. Low palatability? Agreed, but then what immediate benefit to a farmer who would rather have a barrier of fodder grass?

Speaking with my other hat on, as a keen weekend vegetable gardener in South Africa, I delight in grooming my robust and effective Vetiver barriers. It certainly has a role to play in this and other specific situations.

Surely Vetiver ought to be offered as just one potential option in a basket of possibilities - and not held up as a panacea. There is no quick fix in soil conservation! So as well as the success stories let's hear of the practical problems. Let's also hear of the alternatives and complimentary technologies. Do not be discouraged, but do, please, maintain a healthy balance.

Will Critchley, Research Coordinator, Land Management and Rural Development Programme, University of the North, Private Bag X1106, Sovenga 0727.

The prose is enough to render any response futile. Will, the job of editor is yours! Seriously though, I think most of us agree with you. As I mentioned in the last newsletter, vetiver technology and applications cannot fail. All that can fail is our ability to utilise the technology and apply the grass appropriately. I also agree with you on the hype versus the actual on ground applications, especially in the small scale agricultural sector. It is my experience that the usually impoverished small-scale farmer has far more direct and pressing priorities. He or she needs to put food on the table and cash in the pocket. Vetiver's contribution to these direct needs has been minimal. The current challenge in this sector, as I see it, is to promote vetiver as a crop with direct commercial value. A crop that can be sold to the Tony Tantums, Johan Swarts and Andrew Halls of the commercial application and oil extraction world, or that can be mixed with molasses and used as an effective fodder crop, or that can be used by the farmer-turned-contractor to stabilise road cuts and fills on nearby civil construction projects. Then, and only then, will vetiver realise its full value. (Ed)



Essential Oil Production

The vetiver oil distillation plant at Dickon Hall near Nelspruit is operational. Roots from several suppliers are being processed and the oil yields are up to expectation. The quality of oil is comparable to oil produced by Reunion, the recognised area for high quality vetiver oil.

The harvesting techniques for vetiver roots have been improved over last years initial trials and work is being conducted on the farms and at the distillation plant on moisture loss of roots after harvesting.

Andrew Hall

Managing Director: Dickon Hall, P O Box 8, Mataffin, 1205

Short and sweet. Andrew's not giving away any commercial secrets! As well as stimulating large scale commercial growing, Andrew has expressed to me the need to encourage small-scale vetiver grower development in Mpumalanga. He is in direct contact with the staff of EcoLink in this regard. (Ed)


A Final Word


I am beginning to realise the importance of this newsletter to those individuals who have limited access to modern forms of communication. I sit at this desk with the sophisticated infrastructure of automatic telephone exchanges, fax facilities and access to the Internet. All the information I want (and plenty that I could do without) is at my finger tips. I imagine people like Soren in south-eastern Zimbabwe and the small scale rural farmers of southern Africa whose only form of contact is an unreliable and delayed postal service (letters from Zimbabwe often take a month to reach me). The effort of communicating is considerable and the frustrations must be immeasurable. It is you who we particularly want to support and assist and it is to you that this newsletter is dedicated.