Crossing the Biochar Chasm

Entrepreneurs often speak of ‘crossing the chasm’ with regards to launching new technologies. The now-ubiquitous iPhone was once a niche product, prized by early adopters but not yet mainstream. Biochar faces a similar challenge– A handful of visionaries from various geographies have recognized the potential of this farming technique and adopted it. Everyday, these leaders see the benefits of biochar in their gardens, on their farms and in their climate. They post vivid anecdotes and stories to the internet. However, biochar is not yet reaching the bulk of the agricultural and gardening markets. Whether it’s lack of awareness or lack of rigorous scientific and economic data, something is missing from the global biochar story.

How do we transition biochar from early adoption to global solution? How do we cross the chasm and make biochar a mainstream idea? Every audacious goal seems impossible until it’s broken up into actionable steps. At re:char, we believe the next step in the biochar journey is to reach and carefully document 10,000 paying customers using biochar. The global academic and entrepreneurial community has shown convincingly that biochar improves crop yield under controlled conditions. In addition, the biochar industry has shown that early adopters are willing to pay for this technology. However, there have been few large-scale studies of biochar with >100 actual customers in the field.

Obviously, studies of this size and scope take time and money. However, the benefits to the biochar industry would be numerous:

  • A successful and rigorous 10,000 user trial would silence critics: groups like Biofuelwatch repeatedly point to a lack of data as a reason to dismiss biochar. A 10,000 user trial across multiple crops and geographies would be the largest to-date, and would demonstrate that biochar is a reliable and effective solution for increasing crop yields.
  • It would validate the industry: 10,000 documented, paying customers would prove that biochar has economic legs. A dataset of this size would also help to determine a sustainable price for biochar production. Once technologists know what 10,000 users are willing to pay for biochar, they can optimize their systems to produce at or below this price.
  • Data from 10,000 users would attract the interest of international aid organizations: Aid orgs like USAID, UKAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are eager to fund the scale-up of new agricultural techniques to improve crop yield for farmers in the developing world. However, these groups need convincing and statistically-significant data documenting the effectiveness and adoption potential for these technologies. Right now, there is insufficient data on biochar to warrant large-scale funding. From our discussions with these organizations, 10,000 documented, paying users is a critical adoption threshold that we must cross.
  • It would generate significant impact: We estimate that reaching 10,000 smallholder farmers would offset 96,000 metric tons of CO2 (the annual emissions of ~15,000 automobiles). Based on our initial work in Kenya, we calculate that the use of biochar would generate a savings of nearly $2M for these farmers through reductions in fertilizer and yield improvements. One of re:char’s advisors, Rich Sun, once said that to launch a new technology “you must first find the people who can’t live without your product and sell to them.” For many farmers in Kenya and the developing world, food insecurity is a life or death issue. Biochar can help farmers transition from grain debt to grain surplus.
  • 10,000 success stories are good for the industry as a whole: Developed-world biochar consumers are interested in more than just what biochar can do for their own personal farms or gardens. These users have a social and environmental conscience and have shown they want to make the world a better place. By rigorously sourcing and promoting success stories in the developing world, we can reach and attract new consumers in the developed world. If these customers know that their purchase of biochar supports efforts in the developing world, they are much more likely to take the plunge on a new technology.

So how do we get to 10,000 farmers? At re:char we believe that collaboration is critical to reaching this goal. It will take us 2 years to reach 10,00 farmers alone, but with the support of the biochar community, we could cut this time in half. In the coming weeks, we will work with partners in the biochar industry to launch a unified and standardized reporting tool for biochar. This tool will allow us to source data from the crowd, while maintaining scientific rigor. Clearly, there are still many details to be worked out, but we want to gauge interest from the biochar community, and identify potential partners. If you are interested to participate in this program, please speak up in the comments, or email us privately at info@re-char.com.

To 10,000 farmers and beyond!

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