Partnering Across the Sanitation Value Chain: The Next Great Agricultural Input – The Climate Foundation and Sanergy Research Biochar

In Part 3 of our series on Partnering Across the Sanitation Value Chain, Laura Talsma of the Climate Foundation writes about the partnership between Sanergy and the Climate Foundation to trial the production of biochar using human waste. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here.

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A prototype of the Biochar machine

Human waste is only an inconvenience for some, but for others, it’s a life threatening problem. 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have access to proper sanitation. With this in mind, the Climate Foundation is taking up the challenge to turn a problem into an opportunity. By setting up a business around a taboo like sanitation, more and more people are gaining access to safe sanitation, and the taboo is changing.

Together with Sanergy, the Climate Foundation is looking at a whole new way of using human waste. By heating up human solid waste in the absence of oxygen, biochar is created: a type of charcoal, but made from alternative biomass. Biochar can be used as a soil conditioner in agriculture for it is good at helping the soil retain water and nutrients or it can be used as a fuel briquette for cooking. By creating a valuable end product, an entrepreneurial system is built, which in turn, creates incentives to maintain and build waste infrastructures. Watch this video here!

At Sanergy’s lab, over the last 6 months, our team has collected samples of the waste from Fresh Life Toilets to be analyzed. By knowing more about the variables in the waste now, we know what to expect when the technology is running for days on end in the future.

We have also set up a small oven – called a charcolator – in partnership with Cornell University. With the charcolator, biochar samples can be made with Sanergy waste, and tested for both agriculture and fuel purposes. In the coming months, our PhD student from Cornell, Leilah Krounbi, will organize growth trials with different kinds of biochar mixes to see how well Kenyan crops react to them. As Fausto Marcigot, Sanergy’s R&D lead for this project notes, “We think there’s a great opportunity here in Kenya to help farmers out, but we have to make sure that we are developing a product that farmers will value.”

During the development of the technology in the United States, a team of market researchers is already scanning the markets for biochar in Kenya – to see how the adoption of the end product can be smooth, and a continuous business model can be put into practice.

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