Biochar Social Enterprise – A Solution?

Biochar Social Enterprise – Part 3 Can this be a solution for corn crop waste burning?

Cool the Climate, Clean the Environment, Improve Public Health, Reduce Rural Poverty with Small-Scale Biochar – Part 3

Corn is here to stay. There is no “better” crop to replace it for farmers of the marginal lands at the fringe of development and no prospect that meat consumption will plunge any time soon. So what is to be done – can anything be done – to reduce the impact of burning 150 to 375 million tonnes of corn waste annually?

Biochar Social Enterprise

 

This, the third in a series addressing the climate, environmental and human health consequences of the open field burning of crop waste, offers a practical, low-cost, cost-effective, replicable, sustainable – even profitable – solution to the problem of crop waste burning.

The Village-Scale Biochar Social Enterprise Solution

What is needed is a business model that offers farmers and villagers a real incentive not to burn right there where they live. How to implement such a solution?

Teach small farmers to convert their waste into biochar and either to use it as a soil amendment or sell it to a member owned, village cooperative that processes it into value-added biochar products such as smokeless briquettes for cooking or fertilizer.

Why small farmers? Because corn crop waste is widely dispersed across steep mountain slopes and is prohibitively expensive to collect. To stop the burning, it is necessary to give the burners, the small farmers themselves, a better (ideally profitable) alternative way to clear their fields. Admittedly, individual farmers and village cooperatives will have a vanishingly small impact on this global problem, but this is not the point. Imitated by millions of farmers in hundreds of thousands of villages, a village biochar social enterprise might eliminate it.

This business model offers individual farmers the ability to earn large amounts (relative to their current incomes) and village biochar cooperatives the ability to pay generous dividends to members. (Many express skepticism that farmers will make biochar at all. Warm Heart’s experience shows that they will even in wealthy countries such as Thailand. As long as there is a market, the poor will perform.) The connection is simple: the more money each biochar converter makes, the greater the incentive for other farmers to make biochar and the less waste burned. Likewise, the more profitable each cooperative, the greater the incentive for other villages to imitate the social enterprise model and the less waste burned.

This five minute video shows anyone how to make a basic barrel TLUD biochar machine. In North Thailand, materials, including a used, high-quality barrel, costs $85. Construction takes about an hour and a half.

What Is Biochar? Why Make It? Why Use It?

To make biochar, biomass such as crop waste is pyrolyzed (heated without oxygen). This can be done using extremely simple technology. In fact, corn stalk is easily pyrolyzed in a trench in the ground. Producing biochar sequesters CO2 at a ratio of 3:1, CO2 to biochar, making biochar production the only cost-effective carbon negative process available today. Biochar production also averts the emission of the GHGs CH4, and NOx. It averts the emission of black carbon, the smog precursors NH3 (ammonia), MNOCs, and NOx, and PM2.5, all of which are combusted or chemically broken up in the heat of the process. (For the scientific data, see “In-Field Biochar Production from Crop Residues,” Tropentag Conference on International Research on Food Security, Natural Resource Management, 2015.) When used as a soil amendment, biochar reestablishes soil carbon stocks, restores degraded soils by improving soil structure, fertility and pH, raises yields, increases water penetration and retention, lowering drought risk to crops, and locks up heavy metals, agro- and industrial chemicals, reducing soil, water and food contamination.

If you read Thai, this slideshow walks you through the making, use and virtues of biochar.

 

A five minute video that teaches small farmers how to make biochar fertilizer. In field tests with rice, this fertilizer out-performed farmers regular synthetic fertilizer by 10%.

How Would a Village Biochar Social Enterprise Work?

A social enterprise converts social problems into profitable business opportunities that benefit all stakeholders. Contrary to the standard model of development that requires large inputs of outside cash and expertise in a limited number of locations and that disempowers community members, the social enterprise model capitalizes on the self-interest of local players who invest in their own projects to better their own lives, causing “development” to spread by imitation.

Put differently, social enterprise is a model for sustainable development and sustainable agriculture. There are great virtues to improved farming technology, seeds and so on, as long as they are appropriate to farmers’ actual conditions. The risk is always that when introduced by well-intentioned outsiders, these inputs bomb, witness the myriad failed development schemes that litter the developing world. There are two related problems that defeat sustainability. Outside intervention changes local relative prices making project innovations profitable. Once interventions stop, prices return to normal and many innovations are no longer profitable or sustainable. Cost-sensitive small farmers drop them. Replicability and scaleability are essential to outside planners who equate the size of problems with the size of the required solution. The result of rushing to replication is often large-scale failure.

Social enterprise avoids these problems because it starts from the self-interest of local stakeholders and spreads through the imitation of others, like individuals. It is the very do-it-yourself, low-rent messiness of the social enterprise approach that makes it so apt for sustainable development and sustainable agriculture – even if it violates all of the niceties of bureaucratic and budget driven management.

The numbers vary wildly from country to country. Here let me use numbers from a rich, high cost country, Thailand, because I know them well. I assume a minimum cost operation of the sort that poor farmers would use, but to be conservative, I use Thailand’s national minimum wage of $10 per day (actually paid nowhere in the mountain, corn growing areas). Please note below that although equipment costs may be higher in poorer countries, labor costs, especially when paid by villagers to each other, will be far lower.

These numbers are only suggestive, not definitive. They do suggest, however, that farmers without a dry season income might want to make biochar for a local cooperative and that village members might think it reasonable to borrow the equipment costs and working capital requirements to start a biochar social enterprise.

 

Biochar Social Enterprise

This guy made so much money in the first two months that he bought a pair of water buffalo. He named them “Oon” and “Jai” (“Warm” and “Heart” in Thai, the name of our organization).

But Can a Biochar Social Enterprise Work in the Real World?

At Warm Heart we know that this business model works because we have tested it and continue to test it. (See the header photo and the photo above.) Farmers are delighted to make biochar for a price that permits the profitable sale of processed products. At the end of the fiscal year, there is enough profit left in the bank to pay a nice dividend to all biochar social enterprise coop members. The challenges of government interference and social discord within broken villages are real but manageable.

“Rak Din” (Thai for “Cherish” or “Restore the Earth”), our own demonstration social enterprise, is proof that a profitable biochar-products “factory” can be pretty low rent and profitable, although demand creation is very demanding.

Ironically, although the market enables this simple social enterprise solution to major problems, the market poses the single biggest threat to it, as well.

Next Part 4: Demand Creation – Establishing a market for biochar

Download PDF: Cool the Climate (5 Part Series)

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