Jason Aramburu enables thousands of smallholder farmers to significantly enrich their fields using their own biochar, which they make locally from freely available farm waste. Using biochar increases yield while cutting the use of expensive and environmentally harmful fertilizers.
The New Idea
Jason is adamant that we can break the downward spiral of growing dependence on chemical fertilizer use, declining land quality, and falling crop yields in Africa. Through his organization, re:char, Jason provides affordable access to technology that enables smallerholder farmers to produce biochar from agricultural waste. Biochar is a carbon-negative soil amendment that eliminates dependence on chemical fertilizer and, based on his work in Kenya, boosts crop yield by an average of 144 percent. Biochar technology allows smallholders to grow more food—and more nutritious food—without purchasing additional land or fertilizer. Once spread globally, millions of farmers would experience a big increase in their annual income (an average increase of 30 percent in Kenya): and climate scientists predict that this more sustainable practice could offset up to 12 percent of humanity’s annual CO2 emissions, and dramatically fight the effects of climate change.
Today’s most popular agricultural interventions are built on the premise that access to inputs is smallholder farmers’ biggest challenge. For example, interventions focus on creating lines of credit to farmers to buy chemical fertilizer or creating networks of mobile sales agents to overcome the lack of agricultural input stores in rural areas. Jason agrees that access is a challenge, but the bigger and more relevant question is “Access to what?” Innovations in credit and extension still promote a costly, unsustainable, and environmentally taxing petrochemical solution.
Biochar is by no means a new technology, and its promise has long been evident. Through re:char, Jason has created improved production techniques and the appropriate access channels for a possibly game-changing product to reach those who can benefit from it the most: smallholder farmers with limited access to improved inputs and locked in a cycle of poverty. At scale, this winning combination of product and process innovation could significantly improve the lives of millions of smallholder farmers around the world.
Many smallholder farmers in Africa subsist on poor, acidic soils that do not readily retain nutrients. As a result, crop yields and soil nutrition across the continent lag behind other regions in the developing world, which affects their nutritional as well economic outcomes. Many families subsist on a diet that consists primarily of maize flour mixed with water or ugali. Though ugali lacks many critical nutrients for growth and development, it is the only source of affordable calories.
While national governments and development agencies encourage the increased use of chemical fertilizers to solve low crop yields and poor nutritional content, many fertilizer products on the Kenyan market are expensive and not effective. The recommended applications are costly and it is difficult for the most remote farmers to find products on store shelves, even if they could afford to buy them. In Western Kenya there are around five million farmers of cash crops, namely maize, sugarcane, or other staple grains like sorghum and millet. The Kenyan government recommends that these smallholders apply diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer at a rate of 50kg/acre/season to their fields to achieve a profitable level of growth. At a retail price of 4,500 Kenyan Shillings (about US$50) per 50 kg bag, many farmers will spend over $200/year on fertilizer, or between 20 to 30 percent of their annual income. Their rain-fed farms with poor soil quality are particularly susceptible to climate change, an especially grim reality for millions of African smallholder farmers already living on the margins. These farmers depend on consistent yields to generate a sufficient income to feed their families and cover expenses. Smallholders rarely have sufficient savings to overcome a poor harvest and are unable to respond to the rising cost of fertilizer and the threat of climate change without additional intervention.
Although improving crop yields is important, chemical fertilizer comes with its own complications. Over the last 100 years, the world has grown dependent on chemical fertilizer. Because natural gas has been cheap and abundant—and nonorganic fertilizer is made in laboratories where natural gas is burned at a high volume and mixed with ammonia to create nitrates—the price of fertilizer has been artificially low for some time. Industrial agriculture has grown dependent on the availability of cheap, nonorganic fertilizer. Other possible soil improvement techniques—like biochar—have not been able to take off in the presence of cheap competitors. Moreover, holistic approaches like biochar are in direct conflict with the industrial agricultural model, one where externalities are not factored in and where “spray and pray” is the modus operandi. Of course, the downside is that chemical spraying has dire implications for crop yields and the environment in the long run.
Soil health is declining across Africa, partly as a result of nonorganic chemical additions. Yields and nutrient density of crops are dwindling as a result of using these nonorganic chemicals, and plot sizes are shrinking through land inheritance and rising costs of land. Furthermore, when fuel costs rise, fertilizer costs increase. Even in Kenya where as many as 70 percent of farmers use at least some nonorganic fertilizer (in contrast to much lower averages elsewhere in Africa), the lack of infrastructure, the volatile cost of natural gas globally—a key component in fertilizer production, and falling commodity prices—make it challenging for fertilizer companies to provide products to smallholders at an affordable price.
We must now add the threat of climate change to these challenges. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s current estimates indicate that a 2 degree warming in mean annual temperatures could reduce the yield of rain-fed agriculture in Africa by as much as 50 percent. Ironically, the production and use of chemical fertilizers is a major source of CO2 and NOx emissions, both potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Organic fertilizers are used, but are currently not scalable solutions. Organic composted manure is an effective fertilizer, but not a widespread solution as there are limited numbers of livestock in these agricultural areas. And though organic fertilizers have recently been allowed on the commercial market in Kenya (thanks to the work of Ashoka Fellow Nelson Kariuki), the market demand for this product is far greater than the current supply.
Smallholder farmers need new, affordable fertilizer technologies that can allow them to grow higher-value and more nutritious vegetable crops. Jason is developing a solution that allows farmers to produce fertilizer locally, at low or zero cost. This answer is also carbon-negative.
Under Jason's leadership, the re:char team aims to provide smallholder farmers in East Africa with an affordable kiln to produce biochar from their agricultural waste. Biochar technology will allow smallholders to increase the quantity and nutritional quality of food produced without purchasing additional land or fertilizer. Biochar is produced by burning dry crop waste like corn stalks, sugarcane trash, and corncobs at extremely high temperatures in a low-oxygen environment. Under these conditions, the crop waste does not burn to ash, but forms a charcoal that is nearly 90 percent pure carbon. When this charcoal is added to soil, it acts like a sponge; it improves the soil’s ability to retain nutrients, water, and beneficial microorganisms. What’s more, unlike traditional manure and organic fertilizer, Biochar is not consumed in the soil, but permanently alters its structure and increases its ability to retain nutrients, which makes the food grown in it more nutrient dense. Finally, biochar is the only carbon-negative fertilizer technology in existence. Unlike chemical and nonorganic fertilizers, biochar actually sequesters atmospheric CO2 and reduces emissions of NOx, providing great benefits for the global climate.
There is a large body of scientific literature supporting biochar’s effectiveness across a variety of soil types but very little innovation to get this technology in the hands of the people that need it the most. To incentivize the adoption of this technology by small-scale, risk-averse farmers, Jason understands the need to make biochar locally available while quickly and clearly showing its effectiveness. Since rural routes to market for agricultural inputs are notoriously inefficient and meager in their reach, Jason’s innovation starts by bringing the tools of production to the farmers. re:char has developed and deployed an affordable biochar kiln to over 1,000 smallholder farmers in Western Kenya. With this device, farmers eliminate their dependence on chemical fertilizers while growing more food (and sell extra biochar to neighbors).
The production and sale of the kilns happens locally to keep the unit costs low. Jason and his team have developed a mobile factory that fits into a shipping container. This self-contained system boasts state-of-the-art metal fabrication tools that follow precise computer specifications and create a chimney, air intake, and lid that when fitted to a 55-gallon drum (available the world over) become the airtight and highly-efficient re:char kiln. For a total cost of US$3,000, the factory—situated on a 6-acre plot alongside the highway to Kisumu—can produce 3,000 kits per month. Furthermore, the cost of local kilns are subsidized through the sales of the same kilns to hobbyists and gardeners in the US and Europe for $300 each—sales last year were US$101,000.
The second key to re:char’s success hinges on its ability to quickly demonstrate biochar’s effectiveness both at the individual and regional level. To date, the average Kenyan farmer has been able to buy a kiln, produce enough biochar to treat his one-acre field after two weeks of use, and after one harvest, see a 140 percent yield increase. Across the region in which Jason works, more than 2,200 farmers within walking distance of each other have adopted the biochar approach and demand is taking off.
In order to manage this demand, Jason has created a network of re:char sales agents. Using a direct sales approach integrated with extension services, re:char projects that it will reach 100,000 farming households by 2016. The agents host demonstrations, sell kilns, train customers, and offer advice. They have been most successful by accessing networks of farmers and partners with huge reach. They have partnered with Green Mountain Roasters (a US coffee company) to have their technology distributed to tens of thousands of coffee farmers in Rwanda and Kenya. They are developing partnerships with groups such as One Acre Fund and Vestergaard Frandsen who together reach over a million agricultural households in Kenya alone. In addition, re:char works with leading scientists and the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture to increase policy support for this technology and with Radio Lifeline (Rwanda) to raise awareness. Farmers that can’t afford the kilns outright can access the Kiva Zip program and buy the kilns on credit. To date, 83 percent have repaid their loans in six months.
The impact of biochar has been immediate and obvious, most noticeably when farmers are getting paid for their bumper harvests. Although harder to measure, the nutrient density of the soils and the foods it produces are also improving dramatically.
To better measure soil health and plan accordingly, Jason has developed and launched the SoilIQ, a mobile-enabled device that tests soil moisture and fertility. The device is a small waterproof box with two metal rods protruding from one side and a small screen like those on basic calculators on the other. Inside is a SIM card that links to the mobile phone network. When the rods are inserted in the soil, the geolocation and detailed readings of all the tested parameters are sent to a central database. Simple prompts appear on the screen, such as your soil is too moist for corn; your soil is low in nitrogen and you might consider planting legumes; your soil is acidic but you could buy biochar from your neighbor. Since there is currently no easy, cost-effective way to get soil tested, immediate readings and recommendations are a game-changer. They allow for better and more cost-effective planning and, when linked to the network of re:char agents, will be a critical contributor to growing sales of biochar and re:char kilns. The SoilIQ devices will be available for purchase for US$6 at any Orange telecom shop later this year. Furthermore, Orange—with 30 million subscribers across East Africa—will share user lists and help market the product. Thus, every time someone uses SoilIQ, the resolution of the global soil map gets one pixel clearer.
International institutions and organizations have been eager to join Jason in his efforts. He has partnered with Innovations for Poverty Action, UC-Berkeley and USAID to conduct a comprehensive randomized controlled trial on the impact of biochar kilns on farmers in Western Kenya. This 18-month study will provide detailed information for governments and policymakers on the impact of biochar on farm profitability and provide a good impetus for nationwide adoption of the technology. To date, they have successfully deployed re:char kilns in six countries (Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Haiti, US and Netherlands) with more partners copying the model. The entire business plan—from how to build the kilns, outfit a mobile factory, and apply biochar—is open source and available online.
Looking to the future, Jason admits that it is hard to change industrial agriculture, but it’s equally hard to see the model working for the next century. As he points out, this system only works out financially with a substantial petroleum subsidy. When petroleum subsidies cease, the cost of food will be driven up. Jason is hopeful that re:char will help small farmers become the backbone of the global food supply. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as if we have many other options. 90 percent of individual farmers globally cultivate plots of land under 10 acres and with the projected need to double food production by 2020, smallholder farmers will increasingly be called upon to deliver greater yields. However, small farmers will need to do better with less in order to rise to this challenge: less water, less chemicals, and less waste. Thankfully, biochar can help.
Jason grew up in South Texas as the son of a Dominican immigrant father and American mother. Agriculture was always an important part of his life and he always felt a deep connection to the land. Jason’s parents, who came from humble means, stressed to him the importance of giving back. They instilled in him a responsibility to his talents and scientific interest to help humanity, particularly those most in need.
Jason discovered his passion for plant science early. A project focused on developing disease-resistant tomato plants won him the grand prize at an international science fair and taught him an invaluable lesson: with hard work and the support of his family, anything was possible. Jason continued to pursue his interests in learning more about nature and the environment at university by leading outdoor and wilderness programs.
Another experience that had a profound impact on Jason’s life as a social entrepreneur was a trip to visit his father’s home in the Dominican Republic. He saw first-hand the challenges small farmers in the Global South faced. Lacking access to knowledge and the best available agricultural technology, hard-working families were trapped in poverty. Maybe hard work and the support of your loved ones wasn’t enough, Jason realized. Back at Princeton University, Jason dug deeply into the challenges small farmers faced. He wrote his thesis on technologies to improve nutrient cycling and utilization among small farmers in Panama and spent a year working in the field through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
Jason first learned of biochar from a group of soil scientists. Biochar, he discovered, is an ancient technology that has been in use for thousands of years in the Amazon Basin and Central America. Indigenous farmers developed it in response to the traditionally thin and poor soils found in the central Amazon. This was exactly the sort of “technology” that was inexplicably inaccessible to the farmers he had met in the Dominican Republic and to so many millions more around the world. Jason became committed to finding a way to spread this technology everywhere that struggles with food security.
In 2007 Jason seized on an opportunity to get some hands-on experience as part of the startup team at Innozone, a company seed-funded by Peter Kellner, the co-founder of Endeavor, an effort to create knowledge networks and allow companies to outsource problem-solving. When Peter realized other competitors were much further along, he pulled the plug. But he encouraged Jason to launch re:char.
Jason is an entrepreneur trained as a scientist with an affinity for technology and a nuanced understanding of the academic world of research. He and his wife live in Kenya but the high-resolution soil map he is building—as well as his vision of social impact—are global.