1. Agriculture World

This Kenyan Company Provides Organic Fertilizer to Farmers at a Fraction of Cost

To date, more than 5,000 Kenyan farmers have purchased the fertilizer, improving their output by $800,000. Farmers in India and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa will now be contacted by the corporation.

Shivam Dwivedi
A Kenyan Farmer Sprinkling organic Fertilizer in his Field
A Kenyan Farmer Sprinkling organic Fertilizer in his Field

Synthetic fertilizers are sometimes the only option for poorer farming households, and the chemicals in them can cause soil acidity and degradation over time. Safi Organics has created a low-cost organic fertilizer that can aid in the restoration of agriculture and increase productivity.

To date, more than 5,000 Kenyan farmers have purchased the fertilizer, improving their output by $800,000. Farmers in India and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa will now be contacted by the corporation.

The majority of commercial fertilizer travels a long way before reaching Kenyan farmers in rural areas. Many farmers are forced to rely on low-cost synthetic fertilizers due to transportation expenses, which can cause soil acidity and degradation over time.

Elders have watched their grain harvests fall over the course of decades, resulting in a multigenerational problem. Safi Organics is now employing MIT's D-Lab technology to create organic fertilizer that can help rehabilitate such farmlands. Locally, the fertilizer is manufactured from crop residue after harvest.

Safi buys crop residue from farmers, such as rice husks, and processes it locally before giving it back to them at a profit. According to the business, after just one planting cycle, their fertilizer has been demonstrated to minimize soil acidity and enhance crop yields by up to 30%.

For farmers who rely on their crops to exist, this is a life-changing rise. Farmers have been able to feed their families, send their children to school, and acquire financial independence as a result of the increased crop sales.

"For the first time, Safi is decentralizing fertilizer production so that it may be carried out in remote areas," explains Kevin Kung, co-founder and chief technical officer 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, those farmers have reported an increase in profits of $800,000 as a result of higher agricultural harvests. Safi is now attempting to export its approach to India and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

A Long Journey

Kung has spent more than three years on a research study to turn organic waste such as agricultural debris from African villages into charcoal for cooking fuel 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 programme to help her with her efforts.

Unfortunately, a series of failed pilot projects forced him to look for a long-term business plan while his MIT team disintegrated. So, in the summer of 2013, Kung decided to utilize some of his funds to fly to Kenya and collaborate with a local collaborator.

Samuel Rigu, an agricultural manager, approached him after he created a job description. Kung hired Rigu to oversee operations in Kenya when he returned to MIT at the conclusion of the summer, despite the fact that he was still working on his Ph.D.

Kung grew to respect Rigu's commercial acumen soon after he took over the project. Rigu discovered that the charcoal they were creating could be blended with other nutrients and used as a fertilizer for growing crops. The realization paved the path for localized fertilizer manufacture, 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 agricultural community, and recalls his grandmother crying as she spoke of the family's land slowly losing its vitality.

Kung was hesitant about fertilizer production, but Rigu persuaded him to test the concept with a small group of farmers. When harvest time arrived, some farmers who utilized the strategy virtually doubled their yields (pH tests later showed the fertilizer helped combat the acidification caused by other farming techniques).

Rigu and Kung were astounded to see how the increased cash had a rippling effect in the neighborhood, with impoverished farmers using the monies 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 was awarded 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 deliver fertilizer to tens of thousands of farmers up to 20 kilometres away at a profit. Furthermore, because Safi's biochar is high in inert carbon, it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere when used as fertilizer.

Meanwhile, Kung's Ph.D. turned into a project to develop low-cost, portable biomass conversion equipment for use in rural regions, such as the tiny farms with which Safi works. He claims that working with Safi helped him keep his PhD work relevant to real-world issues

"[Safi] began as an MIT project," explains Kung. "However, we had to learn how to engage local partners and recognize that they, not us, will sometimes become the advocates of these efforts, and they will have the final say in the outcome."

Safi's team hopes to expand their strategy to other parts of the world this year, where rural farmers are overpaying for cheap fertilizers.

The company is conducting research in Tanzania and Uganda to see if local partners can establish self-sustaining businesses. Another group in India is replicating the technique with farmers in northern Punjab who have several sorts of crop leftovers to process. Safi's success, according to Kung, has demonstrated the importance of enabling local partners to make business decisions for the communities they are familiar with.

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