A fertilizer that is changing the lives of rural farmers in Kenya | MIT News

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Most commercial fertilizers travel long distances before reaching rural farmers in Kenya. Transportation costs force many farmers to resort to cheap synthetic fertilizers, which can lead to acidification and degradation of their soil over time.

The situation amounts to a multigenerational crisis, as the elders have seen their agricultural yields decline over the decades.

Now, Safi Organics is using technology honed at MIT’s D-Lab to make organic fertilizers that can help restore those farmlands. Fertilizer is made locally from crop residues after harvest.

Safi buys crop residues such as rice husks from farmers and processes them locally before reselling them to farmers at competitive prices. The company claims that its fertilizer reduces soil acidification and increases crop yields by up to 30% after just one planting cycle.

It’s a life-changing increase for farmers who depend on their crops to survive. Farmers have used the extra crop sales to feed their families, send their children to school and gain financial independence.

“Safi is decentralizing fertilizer production so it can be done in rural villages for the first time,” said Safi co-founder and CTO Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17.

The company has been working with farmers in Kenya since 2015. Over 5,000 farmers have purchased Safi Organics fertilizers to date. Kung says these farmers reported a total increase of $800,000 in income from increased crop yields.

Now Safi is looking to bring his model to India and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

A long trip

By the end of 2012, Kung had spent more than three years on a research project to turn organic waste like crop residues from African villages into charcoal for cooking. During these efforts, Kung has received support from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Fellowship, the MIT Tata Center, the MIT Legatum Center, and the MIT IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge program.

Unfortunately, a series of failed pilot projects left him searching for a sustainable business model as his team of MIT students slowly disbanded. Kung therefore decided to use part of his funding to travel to Kenya in the summer of 2013 and partner with a local collaborator.

After writing a job description, he was contacted by an agribusiness official named Samuel Rigu. With Kung’s doctoral work in progress, he hired Rigu to lead operations in Kenya as he returned to MIT at the end of the summer.

Soon after Rigu began leading the project, Kung began to appreciate its entrepreneurial spirit.

Rigu learned that the charcoal they made could also be used as fertilizer to grow crops if combined with other nutrients. Epiphany paved the way for localized production of fertilizers which would offer advantages over the high cost of imported synthetic fertilizers.

Rigu knew well the drawbacks of cheap synthetic fertilizers: he had grown up in a poor rural farming community and remembered his grandmother crying as she talked about the family land gradually losing its vitality.

Kung was skeptical about producing fertilizer, but Rigu convinced him to try the idea with a small group of farmers. When harvest season arrived, some of the farmers using the formulation nearly doubled their yields (pH tests later showed the fertilizer helped combat acidification caused by other farming techniques). Rigu and Kung watched with amazement as the extra income triggered ripple effects in the community: poor farmers used the extra funds to send their children to school and further improve their farms.

The founders decide to create a company selling the soil formulation. They called it Safi Organics. In 2018, Kung received a grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) to dig deeper into the technology involved in Safi’s operations.

Today, each of Safi’s production facilities can profitably supply fertilizer to thousands of farmers up to 20 miles away. Additionally, because Safi’s biochar is rich in inert carbon, when used as a fertilizer, it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Kung’s PhD has evolved into a project to build portable, low-cost biomass conversion systems to deploy in rural areas like the small farms Safi works with. He says his involvement with Safi helped keep his doctoral work relevant to real-world challenges.

“[Safi] started as an MIT project,” says Kung. “But we’ve had to learn to engage local partners and recognize that sometimes they’re going to be the champions of these initiatives, not necessarily us, and they’ll have the final say in the direction of things.”

Partnerships for impact

Supply chain disruptions caused by Covid-19 have made Safi’s locally made fertilizer a vital part of farmers’ lives. Kung says the company sold more than 40 tons of fertilizer last year alone.

This year, Safi’s team hopes to take their model to other parts of the world where rural farmers pay too much for cheap fertilizer. The company is starting studies in Tanzania and Uganda to see if local partners can create sustainable businesses themselves. The model is also being replicated by another group in India with farmers in northern Punjab, who have different types of crop residues to deal with.

For Kung, Safi’s success has shown the value of empowering local partners to make business decisions for the communities they know so well.

“I was initially quite skeptical about the whole idea [of pivoting to fertilizer]”, says Kung. “I didn’t think it was doable. But the local team really proved me wrong and validated the improved yield and the impact on the farmers. For me, it was a inspiring journey.

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