Last year I wrote about re:char, a company based out of Austin, TX that works with subsistence farmers in Kenya to empower them and improve their livelihoods through an unlikely — until you think about it – resource called biochar.
“It’s a really ancient concept. Farmers in the ancient Amazon would make charcoal and bury it in the ground. They called it terra preta — dark earth, and they did it because they knew it worked to improve crop yield,” re:char‘s founder and CEO Jason Aramburu explained to me at the time.
Aramburu has gotten many accolades for his work — the latest of which is a 2011 Social Venture Network Innovation Award, so I thought I’d revisit the company and see what Aramburu has been up to since last December.
Aramburu started re:char, his company that designs and builds equipment that makes biochar, in 2008. Aramburu had worked with poverty-stricken farmers in rural Panama on a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute project when he was a student at Princeton University. He realized that if he could figure out a way to supply smallholder farmers in the developing world with biochar, he would not only help them to bridge the gap between famine and feast, he could also work to offset carbon and help fight global climate change.
For an in depth understanding of how re:char works, take a look at this video:
“Demand for biochar is very high right now in Kenya,” Aramburu recently told me. “We’ve expanded to several cities beyond Bungoma, including Kakamega and Kisumu [Kenya's 3rd largest city]. We’ve also partnered with the UK Biochar Research Centre at University of Edinburgh, one of the top biochar labs in the world.”
Aramburu also says there’s been a shift in the way in which re:char manufactures the biochar, which is made from biomass, environmental waste such as corn husks, wood waste and animal waste through a process called pyrolysis.
Last year he told me, “part of the reason that people don’t do anything with biomass waste is that it’s very hard to move. It has virtually no value. So one of the big innovations of our technology is that it’s mobile so that we can actually take it to where the waste is and convert it on site.”
Today, Aramburu explains, “We’ve shifted our product focus to offer farmers a smaller, farm-sized kiln to make biochar instead of shared, community-scale units. We found this was a more desirable size for an individual farmer in Western Kenya. This size of unit also proved much more cost-effective to manufacture and sell,” he says, adding that re:char is in the process of installing a manufacturing line in Bungoma to mass-produce their kilns locally.
“We’ve realized that outsourced manufacture isn’t always cheaper when you factor in transport costs. This production hub will utilize local raw materials and cut our manufacturing and transport costs dramatically. It’s definitely a new approach to mass-production, but we believe it will allow us to pass savings onto our customers and create jobs where they are most needed.”
Last year, too, Aramburu traveled to Haiti where he was going to work with an NGO already on the ground to produce biochar for heating oil and cookstoves. “While Haiti is still very much on our radar,” he says, “we’ve had to put the Haiti operation on hold for the time being so that we can focus exclusively on Kenya.”
Re:char currently serves 750 farmers in Kenya. Aramburu is banking on biochar to bridge the gap for subsistence farmers, to empower them not only to improve their crop yields and incomes, but to potentially offset a portion of the world’s carbon emissions in the process. The results are not only impressive, they’re having a real effect on not only the farmers’ livelihoods, but on the environment as well.
photo courtesy of re:char
Read more: 2011 Innovation Awards, biochar, biomass, climate change, fertilizer, jason aramburu, kenya, pyrolysis, re:char, socent, social enterprise, social entrepreneur, social venture network, subsistance farmers, SVN
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