Synthetic fertilizers are sometimes the only option for poorer farming households, and the chemicals they contain can cause soil acidity and degradation over time. Organic Safi created a low-cost organic fertilizer that can help restore agriculture and increase productivity.
To date, more than 5,000 Kenyan farmers have purchased the fertilizer, boosting their production by $800,000. Farmers in India and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa will now be contacted by the company.
The majority of commercial fertilizer travels a long way before reaching Kenyan farmers in rural areas. Many farmers are forced to resort to low-cost synthetic fertilizers due to transportation costs, which can lead to acidity and soil degradation over time.
The elders have seen their grain harvests drop over the decades, leading to a multi-generational problem. Safi Organics is now using MIT’s D-Lab technology to create an organic fertilizer that can help rehabilitate these farmlands. Locally, fertilizer is made from crop residues after harvest.
Safi buys crop residues from farmers, such as rice husks, and processes them locally before returning them to them at a profit. According to the company, after just one planting cycle, their fertilizer has been shown to minimize soil acidity and improve crop yields by up to 30%.
For farmers who depend on their crops to survive, this is a life-changing increase. Farmers have been able to feed their families, send their children to school and gain financial independence through increased crop sales.
“For the first time, Safi is decentralizing fertilizer production so that it can be carried out in remote areas”, explains Kevin Kung, co-founder and technical director of Safi.
Since 2015, the company has been working with Kenyan farmers. Safi Organics fertilizer has been purchased by over 5,000 farms to date. According to Kung, these farmers reported an increase in profits of $800,000 from higher agricultural harvests. Safi is now trying to export its approach to India and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
A long trip
Kung spent over three years on a research study to turn organic waste such as agricultural debris from African villages into charcoal for cooking by the end of 2012. Kung received funding from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Fellowship, the MIT Tata Center, the MIT Legatum Center, and the MIT IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge program to assist in his endeavours.
Unfortunately, a series of failed pilot projects forced him to search for a long-term business plan as his MIT team disintegrated. So, in the summer of 2013, Kung decided to use some of his funds to fly to Kenya and collaborate with a local collaborator.
Samuel Rigu, an agricultural manager, approached him after creating a job description. Kung hired Rigu to oversee operations in Kenya when he returned to MIT at the end of the summer, despite still working on his doctorate.
Kung learned to respect Rigu’s business acumen soon after taking over the project. Rigu discovered that the charcoal they created could be mixed with other nutrients and used as fertilizer for crop growth. This awareness paved the way for localized manufacturing of fertilizers, which would be cheaper than imported synthetic fertilizers.
Rigu was well aware of the drawbacks of cheap synthetic fertilizers, having grown up in an impoverished rural farming community, and remembers his grandmother crying as he talked about the family land slowly losing its vitality.
Kung was hesitant about producing fertilizer, but Rigu persuaded him to test the concept with a small group of farmers. When harvest time arrived, some farmers who used the strategy nearly doubled their yields (pH tests later showed the fertilizer helped combat acidification caused by other farming techniques).
Rigu and Kung were amazed to see how the increased money had a ripple effect in the neighborhood, with poor farmers using the money to send their children to school and improve their fields.
The founders made the decision to start a business selling the soil formulation. Safi Organics was the name given to the company. Kung received a grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) in 2018 to further the technology involved in the project.
Today, each of Safi’s production plants can supply fertilizer to tens of thousands of farmers up to 20 kilometers away at a profit. Additionally, because Safi’s biochar is rich in inert carbon, it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere when used as fertilizer.
Meanwhile, Kung’s Ph.D. transformed into a project to develop portable and inexpensive biomass conversion equipment for use in rural areas, such as the small farms that Safi works with. He says working with Safi helped him keep his doctoral work relevant to real-world issues.
“[Safi] started as an MIT project,” says Kung. “However, we have had to learn to engage local partners and recognize that it is they, not us, who will sometimes become the champions of these efforts, and will have the final say on the outcome. “
Safi’s team hopes to expand their strategy this year to other parts of the world, where rural farmers pay too much for cheap fertilizer.
The company is conducting research in Tanzania and Uganda to see if local partners can create self-sustaining businesses. Another group in India is replicating the technique with farmers in northern Punjab who have several kinds of crop residues to process. Safi’s success, according to Kung, demonstrated the importance of empowering local partners to make business decisions for the communities they know.