Francois Burger is the founder of Agriman, a business that uses sludge to manufacture various grades of organic fertilisers in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way.
Burger believes that farmers need to prioritize the quality of the soil they are farming on. He made this realization while working as a consultant engineer; this was when he saw that sludge generated by treatment plants can be transformed from a waste product to a valuable resource.
Sludge is the residue that accumulates in sewage treatment plants; it’s the solid, semisolid, or slurry residual material that is produced as a by-product of wastewater treatment processes. Initially he wasn’t sure about the benefits of sludge, but he was happy to play around until he found the best way to use it.
Today, his business manufactures, supplies and markets various grades of organic fertilisers that helps farmers have healthy soil to grow their crops. It took a year for Agriman’s fertilizers to meet the requirements of the Departments of Health and Agriculture.
Agriman’s early days weren’t a success story. “I closed the company three times “but something would always happen to encourage me to start up again,” he recalls. It took Burger 12 years to find a receptive audience for his products. Progressive changes started in the year 2000 when changes to environmental legislation meant that local authorities had to address proper sludge disposal practices; this was also when the farming community was beginning to recognize the role and value of carbon rich organic material in soil health.
Agriman finally got its first break when Burger took part in a tender to manage waste from all wastewater plants managed by the City of Tshwane. Even though the bid process was cancelled, the company was in a good position to negotiate to work on plants in Tshwane.
Over the years, Burger has honed and perfected his formula and products. “We found that although farmers were more open to using our product, they still preferred granular fertilizer because that’s what they were used to,” said Burger. He worked on blending organic materials with conventional chemical fertilizers and ended up with a product that was more readily embraced by the market; because it was more familiar and was more effective than the first iteration.
Burger reports that demand for the product continues to increase. “Farmers have realized the importance of feeding the microbial biomes in their soil. They like our product because it can be blended with conventional fertilizer – it can be used as agranular product one day, and conventional fertilizer product the next, he said. The product has also gained in popularity because farmers recognize the value in adding organic material to soil while planting, instead of tilling soil which disrupts microbial biomes.
The company is growing and is looking to other sources of raw material, such as chicken manure or digestate from biogas plants. It has also entered Memoranda of Understanding with companies that provide technology to the field, making it possible to collect sludge from sites where their technology is installed.
“Despite these challenges, we are proud to be able to offer a product that completes the nutrient circle – it’s satisfying to know that we transform waste, which many people consider to be hazardous, into an earth-friendly product,” Francois concludes.
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