Most fertilizers today are produced in large-scale, centralized, and capital-intensive facilities mostly located in Europe, North America, and China, and then shipped via long-distance transport to the emerging markets. As a result of this logistical and import mark-up, rural farmers often pay 2-3 times the world price for their fertilizers. Due to their limited income, these farmers can often only afford the cheapest, synthetic, one-size-fits-all varieties that over the long term may actually acidify and degrade their soil due to over-dependence. Farmers, as a result, often see their post-harvest yields decrease by up to 30-40% in the last 20 years. This is a significant concern for local food security. In a country such as Kenya, we estimate that there are about 4 million farmers who spend about $76 million/year on ineffective fertilizers. In the world, by 2030, this will be a $30 billion/year problem.
This challenge is close to our heart. Co-founder Samuel Rigu grew up in rural Kenya and witnessed first-hand the fertilizer and soil degradation issues that his neighbors and families faced. For example, he vividly recalled his grandmother, with tears in her eyes, worried about the prospect that perhaps in 20-30 years, there may be very little food from their land.
We use MIT-developed, patent-pending technology to decentralize/downsize fertilizer production, such that it can be carried out profitably on a village-level scale using locally available resources/labor. Imagine small-scale, low-cost, mobile systems that can be latched onto the back of tractors, donkey carts, or shipping containers, and be moved from farm to farm to enable localized conversion of agricultural residues into a fertilizer base under 2 hours without needing external energy input. This base is then mixed with our proprietary recipes to complete the nutrient as standalone fertilizer application. Our process drastically reduces the long-distance logistics needed to deliver high-quality fertilizers to farmers by producing the bulk locally. In addition, our patent-pending control system allows for us to eventually custom-tailor the fertilizer composition in the context of different types of soil conditions and crop needs at an almost single-farm granularity. Our branded and carbon-negative product, Safi Sarvi, improves farmers’ harvest yield and income by up to 30% for the same cost that they pay for fertilizer inputs.
We set up a network of village-based, mobile fertilizer operations (known as MiniPlants), each serving a radius of about 20 km and 500 farming families. Farmers, by selling their residues to the MiniPlants, earn a $20/ton additional income. The MiniPlants process the input and add the proprietary recipe at a profit margin, and then sell the complete fertilizer back the same farming community, thereby completing the local trash-to-cash loop. Each MiniPlant will be operated by a local entrepreneur team and is expected to earn $60,000/year at a 5 tons/day production level.
Our primary beneficiaries are smallholder farmers. Meet Mr. Kibuchi, who holds a one-hectare rice farm. Over 15 years, he had seen his yield decrease by about 40%. After using our product, his input costs remained consistent, but he has seen his crop yield increased by 30%, and income increased by 50%. This was sufficient to send his two children to school, and last year, for him to afford a second-hand tractor for his farm. Amongst the 2,500+ farmers that we work with, these economic gains are widely reported, even after one season of using our product. For them, our fertilizer not only restores their soil health, but also leads to better economic outcomes.
Additionally, our project creates additional rural job and income opportunities, such that youths no longer need to migrate to cities to find jobs. Meet Japhet: he is from the local village, and joined our pilot production as a worker. After 3 years, he has been promoted to production foreman, and is considering getting an MBA degree in Nairobi to further his career.
Moreover, because our fertilizer is rich in inert carbon, when one ton of it is applied to the soil, it also effectively sequesters 1.7 tons of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Thus, the larger we scale, the more profitable we become, the more carbon we also sequester. Finally, our ability to effectively manage agricultural residues without letting it burn in the open also benefits the local communities and nearby cities from reduced air pollution. By 2020 we will sequester 6,000 tons of CO2e and manage 4,000 tons of waste.