Using biochar in Nepal

The project manager of an Asian Development Bank and Nordic Development Fund biochar project talks about using the product in Nepal, how private and public money should work together and why private capital won't yet fund the technology.

Patrick Lee manages a biochar project in Nepal for Landell Mills, a UK-based international development consultancy.

The project, which has $570,000 of funding from the Nordic Development Fund, is field-testing the possiblities of capacity of urine-enriched biochar as a slow-release fertiliser. The study found urine-enriched biochar to be 300 percent more effective than urine alone and 85 percent more effective than just biochar. A tentative explanation for this is that urine improves the ability of biochar to capture and exchange plant nutrients.

Lee tells Agri Investor about the research, and where biochar production in Nepal could go next.

Tell us how the biochar project in Nepal came about.

The overall aim of the project is to increase soil organic matter and the natural fertility of the soil to improve the resilience of Nepali agriculture to climate change.

This is an Asian Development Bank (ADB) administered and Norwegian Development Fund (NDF) funded project, and we administer the project on their behalf. This project followed ADB’s usual procurement procedure: six international firms put in bids for the tender back in 2013 and we were awarded it in early 2014.

The ADB and NDF countries want to fund areas that align with their particular interests, which are green growth, green technology and climate change work. They’re also interested in supporting new sectors.

How did you put it into practice?

When we were awarded the project we flew over to Nepal and held kick-off meetings with the key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Agriculture Development, and set about identifying physical areas for the field trials. Once we had the physical area we had to start to test the biochar producing technology itself. And this is fundamentally what this project is about – will biochar-producing technology work in rural communities in Nepal?

Biochar, which can be made by a number of technologies, has worked in parts of the private sector in a developed country context, but it hasn’t worked as extensively in developing world agriculture. We tested the biochar-producing technologies in a total of 15 communities. We trialled a number of different crops – we had a chilli trial, a ginger trial, a cinnamon trial, tomatoes…

It became evident that using biochar was more useful with some crops than others, and in some locations more than others.

Biochar had quite a bit of attention [seven or eight years ago], but it isn’t generally used in large scale farming – perhaps vineyards in Europe – but not on a wide scale and not in the developing world.

And now we are at a stage that we can recommend the project be scaled up.

How can you scale up biochar production in Nepal?

This is the world’s largest project in field trialling biochar of its type with so many different communities and crops. It’s almost research and development, and the main thing for us to show that it is actually viable.

We have shown that from an agricultural point of view that it does work. The next stage would be the scaling up of this project and show it works from a value chain point of view.

The key question now it works is how do we fund the scaling up – we simply can’t have a donor-driven agenda where only ADB and NDF want to have biochar. It has to be driven by the farmers themselves as well.

How does your work in biochar link up to the private sector?

Both NDF and ADB have a poverty reduction and environmental improvement agenda at their core.  This will, at times, involve working in sectors that the private sector isn’t funding.

The key point with biochar is to harmonise both the poverty reduction and environmental improvement and profit generation agenda.

Developing countries represent considerable new markets with new consumers. Green growth and in particular green technology – biochar being one type of many technologies – is a great opportunity for these two players to work together. Why shouldn’t the poverty reduction and private sector work together, exploring partnerships where win-win models can be demonstrated?

A critical next step in biochar is finding models where these can work. It’s people like NDF and ADB that are funding attempts to find these models and the private sector needs to take more of an active involvement in these early explorations.

What does scaling up look like at the moment?

What we are looking at is household level, which is attractive from a donor, poverty-reduction agenda. It’s not from a commercial or private sector large-scale investor point of view.

Originally we started out at a household level of production, and under our project we will be doing more community-level biochar production. We have shown from household to community is not that much of a jump. The next jump will be more industrial or semi-industrial. We haven’t been able to demonstrate that in this project, because it wasn’t within our remit.

Household level and community level will always be OK for those with a poverty reduction agenda. We need to get to a point where the private sector commercial agenda and the poverty reduction agenda aren’t mutually exclusive.

So if we can find a way to make more industrial scale biochar attractive to investors and actually align it with a poverty reduction agenda that would be a step forward. The sums of money from potential donors is nothing compared to what the private sector could potentially fund.

Why is the private sector not looking further into agricultural biochar in Nepal and developing countries as you are?

The private sector hasn’t been interested there hasn’t yet been a good model that can demonstrate industrial scale. I am pretty confident it will come, but it is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, because finding that model needs financing, but the real money will only go into biochar when the model exists.