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Developing rural livelihood while reducing air pollution and carbon emissions through decentralized biomass upgrading

Using low-cost, small-scale, portable equipment, we enable rural communities triple their income from crop residues while reducing pollution

Photo of Kevin Kung
28 11

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

During the beneficiary research phase, we honed in on a specific group of biomass converters in the local community that turns local coconut shells into carbon black (for use as precursor for water filters). Seeing their existing operation and their inefficient/polluting process, we figured that it would be easiest for us to pilot our work with them first as they already have established a well-developed biomass supply chain. We can triple their income while reducing local pollution by >95%.

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

There are 3 groups in the community: biomass converters, workers at the conversion plants, and local villagers. For the existent biomass converters, the problem manifests itself mostly in economic terms of high input biomass costs and razor-thin profit margins, to the extent that the producers are close to shutting down their businesses. For those workers at the biomass conversion plants, the problem manifests itself in a different acute pain point of chronic exposure to smoky and foul-smelling conditions, which they minimize by wrapping their shirts around their faces while working. There are also local villagers who are affected by the air pollution. However, the voice of the latter two groups is relatively weak. Our technology addresses the existent biomass producers by tripling their net profit, at the same time enabling more villagers to start utilizing their local biomass, without the pollution. This also reduces the local particulate pollution, thus helping the 2 latter groups.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

In the larger system, the inefficient biomass conversion process results in significant particulate emissions, and local air pollution that also contributes to urban smog. While there is interest (and government subsidy) in addressing the pollution issue, by and large it remains an externality with no price tag as the effect is diffuse. Our idea absorbs this externality into a profit-driven model that can benefit the local economy, thereby solving both livelihood and pollution in a scalable way.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

By decentralizing biomass equipment, we allow for the profitable and efficient conversion of biomass in a small scale for the first time, allowing our solution to be adopted and replicated on purely economic terms without needing any external subsidy or policy. Thus our solution can develop rural economy and create added income opportunities while reducing air pollution and mitigating carbon emissions at the same time, changing the perception that local biomass, rather than waste, is an asset.

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

We estimate each system can help existing biomass converters earn $40,000/year more (triple their income), and also enable new biomass converters to set up/own profitable enterprises. Instead of hauling raw coconut shells to their locale, these converters can now deploy the systems to local farmers to locally upgrade biomass, thereby creating around 3 additional local jobs/system. The impact can scale locally within 1 year; additional profits will sustain the expansion beyond BridgeBuilder.

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

We delved more deeply into our target community, and spent a few weeks working with 5 local carbon black producers (existent biomass converters who already are turning coconut shells into carbon black, a precursor for water filter material) as well as their workers. We then identified the specific needs and pain points of existing biomass converters as the suitable first users to test and later sell our units. We then implemented a pilot using a preliminary version of our design (see video) to demonstrate feasibility, producing some samples at a small scale. After seeing the samples, the converters also gave us further product requirements to satisfy (e.g. fixed carbon, ash content, etc. of the final product) which we are working on and are confident that we can meet. When we started the research, our idea was non-specific on the end user, and we had hoped to set up the biomass entire value chain ourselves. Now we have a well-defined end user with a well-developed value chain in place

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

As seen in the attached Gantt chart, we will work intensively with a small group (3) existing local biomass converters to iteratively improve on our design after getting their feedback. We will also test, on a small scale, their input and output requirements both in the lab and in the field. To reduce upfront financing risks for our customers, we will adapt a rent-to-own model, where the biomass converters will pay 20% of their cost savings to us. After 12 months, we expect clear demonstration of value proposition in order to scale our system to the local group of 20 local biomass converters through word of mouth, helping them save ~$2.5 million/year. We will also set up a local batch manufacturing process to produce the systems, and begin a partnership with an existing prominent agricultural equipment distributor to get our system to such biomass converters throughout rural India and later beyond. Working within government pollution-control subsidy scheme will also help us implement.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

Kevin Kung has worked on the core technology, both at MIT and with communities in India and Kenya, for the past 6 years, which formed his MIT PhD (2013-7). Prior, he has 7 years of experience with engineering design in resource-constrained settings such as Uganda, Nigeria, and Peru. Vidyut Mohan, as his Master’s work, conducted detailed user mapping for a similar biomass upgrading process in India, and later worked on user experience with a rural solar company. He works on the pilot operation.

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

BridgeBuilder will finance the design, fabrication, testing, and validation of our first full protoype with at least 3 different end users (existent and new biomass converters) in the local community in order to demonstrate the value proposition and technical feasibility. The successful outcome will result in a design that can be mass-manufactured locally to scale to 60 units amongst ~20 end users. Local salaries, operations, and marketing will be covered via another funding source.

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

Revised questions (after expert feedback): What do the workers at the biomass conversion plants see as the biggest challenges? What do the local villagers (not involved with the biomass conversion industry) see as the biggest challenges? Due to our technology, who can become new biomass producers to convert additional biomass in the supply chain? If so what form will this take? Old questions: Are our observations amongst the 3 existing biomass converters generalizable to the larger group locally, and to other groups in other regions? Are we able to trace the downstream value chain of the current biomass-to-carbon black/water filter with greater detail, all the way from rural communities in India to the water filter companies in the U.S.? How can our system be iterated/designed for minimum local maintenance and user intervention?

Final Updates (*Please do not complete until we reach the Improve Phase*): How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

During our Expert Feedback Phase, we were encouraged to focus less on our hardware technology and to focus more on the actual human experiences/impacts on the rural partners in the entire biomass supply chain. We have therefore revised the unanswered questions above to reflect this new focus, and have intentionally spent more time with the two somewhat more marginalized groups (workers at the existing conversion plants and the local farmers/villagers). By observing how they work, we have appreciated more of what they saw as their most pressing challenges. While some of their challenges--such as the prevailing social stigma / perception that biomass/charcoal workers are of the lowest social caste--are not something we can readily change in a short timespan, there are other important challenges---such as the smoke inhalation problem at the local production facility, are something that we can benefit them directly, and can be used as an important way for them to champion our intervention.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

While before the Improve Phase, we focused mostly on existent biomass converters in the community and how to make their lives/finances better, during the Improve Phase, because of expert feedback, we started thinking more about the additional human side/benefits of our intervention in the local community, namely, who else could our solution benefit, and to what extent. We therefore involved a few women in our pilot who had not been biomass collectors/converters but could become new converters as a result of our process. Here is the actual story of one new biomass collector/converter who was involved in a group of 5 women running this conversion pilot in a cooperative-like model. Deepa Devi resides in the village of Murari. The rugged terrain, the altitude and the remoteness have deprived the region of much of economic and industrial development. Families also have smaller land holdings, making agriculture mostly subsistence. As a result, Deepa Devi finds it very hard to find local income generating opportunities. She has 3 children to support—2 girls and a boy. To add to her woes, her husband is a drunk, and does not contribute significantly to the family income. However, Deepa is a very determined and strong willed lady, and she goes great lengths to find jobs. The only paying local jobs available, particularly for women, is daily wage labour in local construction projects. Deepa Devi treks as much as 5km to reach these sites, work and travel back to finish household chores and work on the fields. However, the availability of such projects is unpredictable, and there can be months when there is no work. It is a constant source of stress for her as to when and where she would be able to find her next source of Income to be able to meet her household expenses. Sometimes, she even takes the help of her children to work in these construction projects as daily wage labour to earn extra money. Deepa Devi's family income varies from Rs 2000-4000 /month due to the unpredictability of the work available. Deepa Devi became an enthusiastic participant in our pilot biomass conversion process. She collected the largest amount everyday- around 150 kg/day, working from 8 am to 11 am, and then heading back home for household chores. At this rate, for 2 Rs/kg, she managed to earn 300 Rs/day (in half a day's work) for a period of 45 days. As a reference, the local daily wage rate is 400 Rs/day for a full day's work. Therefore, during biomass collection, she has been able to earn income at a rate which is 1.5 times faster. This income has added 30% more on average to her current monthly income (assuming Rs 4000). On speaking to Deepa Devi on what the extra income meant to her, she said: "I would use the money to meet basic household expenditures like buying grains, vegetables, soap, clothes etc.. The biomass residue collection and the processing plant are right at the village, so I don't have to travel very far as well, which my family members used to object to. Daily wage labour is getting difficult to find these days, so this income comes as a relief to us. We also get to spend time with our friends during the process, as a social activity, which we otherwise wouldn't get to do while staying at home. This helps us get away from our mother-in-law's for sometime!" Other participants in the pilot also mentioned, that because of this income, they didn't have to ask their husbands for money for a period of time, which gave them independence. While we did not get to test during the iterations so far, the testimonials given above would support the formation of cooperatives comprising of women or other historically economically marginalized members of the communities who could organize together to use our systems to utilize the biomass in their locality and make a profit. This is something that we intend to test as the next step. Ultimately, by working with these would-be cooperative women, we note that as our technology scales in this community, it will benefit not only existent biomass converters, but also has the potential to encourage the establishment of additional cooperatives that can run additional the biomass conversion businesses, thereby multiplying our impact in the local communities.

Note that you may also edit any of your previous answers within the proposal. Here is a great place to note any big final changes or iterations you have made to your proposal below:

The general contour of our idea--deploying decentralized conversion of excess biomass (crop/forest residues) to create additional local livelihood and reduce air pollution from biomass burning--has not changed. However, what we realized is that because biomass is highly diverse, each location may have different needs. Through this process, the best we found that we could do was to identify a specific community and its needs, and check that this need is replicated in sufficient number of communities such that our solution can scale the impact meaningfully. This is why after considering various possibilities such as converting biomass to solid fuel, to fertilizer, or even to biofuel or advanced chemicals ourselves which few people have done before, we settled with a community pilot focusing on upgrading an existing local industry that already makes use of biomass (mainly coconut shells) and produces carbon black as filtration medium or solid fuel. We believe that given the economic incentives already involved, working with these existing stakeholders will lead to a higher likelihood of implementation success. During the Expert Feedback phase, we focused our attention also on other more marginalized members of the community (e.g. women cooperatives) and tested whether our pilot could also bring them additional job and incomeopportunities, even if they were not previous biomass workers/converters. The compelling story of Deepa, which we include above, is a testament of the larger benefit of our solution in the local community. Based on our initial assessment, even though more people are now entering into the local biomass market, this seems not to create adverse competition (which was our original concern), as the product has both local and export uses. In fact, while the existent biomass converters can triple their income using our process, additional cooperatives can now also convert their local biomass that would not make sense for the existent biomass converters to harvest/collect. This results in added value and job opportunities for everyone involved. However, we recognize that despite our iterations so far, our understanding of the problem and the local community is still quite incomplete. That is why we will dedicate the next 3 months conducting more detailed user experience mapping with a wider set of communities facing similar issues before continuing any technical work on our actual prototype. This is so that we ensure that our technical milestones are thoroughly informed by the local end user needs.

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Most biomass (forest/agricultural residues) is located in small pockets in remote areas. Transporting/collecting loose, wet, bulky biomass is expensive, and significantly limits the amount of biomass that can be economically harnessed as renewable energy. As such, smallholder farmers in many remote areas of the world currently have no choice but to dispose or burn such biomass residues in the open air today, which contributes to up to 18% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Jacobson, 2015) as well as local urban smog surrounding major cities. Most biomass processing technologies (torrefaction, gasification, composting, etc.) today are too large-scale (100+ tons/day), centralized, and capital-intensive (>$1 million Euros), and therefore incompatible with the decentralized, small-scale nature of biomass residues. By exploring a novel chemical variant called oxygen-lean torrefaction at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we demonstrated that we can greatly simplify the biomass processing equipment and eliminate many costly subcomponents. MIT has filed two patents on this process, and our company will be licensing exclusively from it. This new approach allows us to imagine small-scale, low-cost (EUR 5,000), portable equipment that can be latched onto tractors or shipping containers and be brought to rural areas to locally upgrade biomass before transportation/processing while requiring no external energy input. This reduces the handling cost by ~50% and opens up an additional $1 trillion/year of biomass can be harnessed at competitive cost to other renewables. Not only does this create additional rural livelihood and jobs on the village level, thereby reducing rural-urban migration, but this also can grow the rural economy in a carbon-negative way. At full scale, we can sequester ~100 million tons/year of CO2 equivalent, which is equal to a mid-sized country such as Indonesia/Brazil.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our total addressable market will be most smallholder farmers who currently dispose/burn their crop residues due to lack of economic use of it. Starting in South India in the State of Karnataka, we initially will target coconut farmers and help them triple their net income from processing the coconut shells into carbon black, a valuable intermediate that can either be used locally as solid fuel for cooking/heating ($300/ton) in existent demand with comparable quality, or processed and exported as activated carbon ($1000/ton) for use in water filter in places such as Europe/North America. These farmers typically have razor-thin margins of around 10% from sales of their products. By enabling these farmers to make additional income by selling their crop residues to a local team that operates our technology, we create about 15 jobs for local underemployed youths, add ~$60,000/yr of additional income to this community of about 500 farms, and sequester ~1,500 tons/year of CO2 equivalent.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Most existing biomass equipment (e.g. Topell, Andritz, Torrefuels) are large-scale (100+ tons/day), cost more than $500,000 upfront, and take years to construct. Such equipment is incompatible in remote communities. Our equipment, designed in rural areas with them, costs $20 initially to start, can be deployed in a matter of weeks, and is much more agile. In recent years, social ventures such as GreenChar and Sanivation have begun exploring decentralized biomass processing. In the past few years we have advised these companies, and know that their technologies are highly inefficient, often with a 10-25% mass conversion rate. Due to this inefficiency, they often have problem producing sufficient product from waste to break even. Our equipment, in comparison, has a mass yield 2-3 times higher, which also doubles/trebles the revenue from the agri-residues. These social ventures have already expressed interest in testing our equipment, as they know it will help their bottom line.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.
  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Takachar ( is set up as a Delaware for-profit company that is commercializing the low-cost, small-scale, portable biomass equipment developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in close partnership with the Tata Trusts in India through an exclusive IP licensing arrangement.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered company.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

In 2012, I was tracing the charcoal supply in Kenya to its root, and got to know a group of (illegal) charcoal producers in a rural forest. Working with them, I realized that they also did not like felling trees to make charcoal, but they had no other choice as this was the only way they could make money in the rural area. The epiphany came that, if there is a robust way to upgrade local farm residues into valuable products, this can provide rural villages with lucrative and greener livelihood.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

In many rural areas, the open burning of crop residues is not only a local pollutant that causes respiratory illnesses, but also contributes to severe smog in nearby urban areas and is responsible for up to 18% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Jacobson, 2015). This therefore is a source of significant planetary degradation. In many of the same communities, their very remoteness makes transportation extremely difficult and costly. This not only makes imported commodities as high as 2-3 times the world price (due to logistical mark-up), but these communities also have trouble economically valorizing their own resources, such as crop residues, which they can only burn/dispose of. By using technology that turns local resources in remote areas into valuable local commodities, we create prosperity at the same time solving the pollution problem by eliminating crop residue burning.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We are working closely with a local organization, Pirool Energy, in the pilot implementation. We have worked with Pirool in the past in implementing a pine-needle-to-solid-fuel project (using a different technology) in Uttarkhand with Avani Bioenergy, as well as an ongoing biomass-based fertilizer project in Maharashtra. Both projects have begun with significant community input and many key practices were designed by the local villagers, including the biomass collection model and fee structure. We already have demonstrated enthusiasm from the local communities regarding our proposed technology. Furthermore, for ongoing R&D support, we also work closely in India with IIT-Bombay and ICT-Mumbai, two highly regarded universities with active research in biomass, and with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. We have begun talking to prospective equipment manufacturing partners in making and distributing our equipment to those communities at an affordable cost.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Our particular community, while poor, already has a streak of entrepreneurship, where many farmers are involved in side businesses and technology-driven value added steps such as fruit drying, and rope production. Through our 4 years' interaction, they convinced us they are happy to entertain any new process as long as it improves their financial bottom line. There is also an eager group of youths to employ, who would otherwise have to relocate to urban slums to find work.

Geographic Focus

Our solution has applicability in remote regions worldwide, but we initially focus in rural India.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

It will take us 12 months to work alongside our community to set up an initial pilot and show initial technical/economic viability. It will take us another 12 months to replicate this pilot to five sites to demonstrate robustness of our process. Between 2020-2021, we will focus on scaling our impact by identifying/training rural implementation partners/microentrepreneurs and by manufacturing/distributing our hardware technology so that they can implement the project in their communities.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

If Yes, how has project idea changed, grown, or evolved since last year? (2,000 characters)

Not applicable

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Photo of Nick McGirl

Hi Kevin! Love this, very thoroughly thought through with global relevance for the bottom of the pyramid. A couple of people from our Ashoka network I would recommend checking out: prototyping some interesting work around converting biomass into a safe alternative to black carbon : Alsoín-ascacibar : using cross-capital participation. I don't feel in a position to look into the technical elements of your 3 unanswered questions but I would be fascinated to see you elaborate more in this submission the human side of this, how could decentralised and cooperative models also be used to give the smallholder farmers more ownership. What creative partnerships can be developed with community groups and organisations to empower farmers beyond modest financial gains?

Photo of Kevin Kung

Thanks Nick so much for your feedback. Your comments about exploring more on the human side of the problem really resonated with us, and we spent the latter part of the Expert Feedback Phase delving deeper into the community and seeing who else our solution could benefit, and in what way. By including a group of marginalized women in the pilot--even when they had no prior biomass experience--we saw how our solution also benefited them in a significant way. This story is now recounted in our profile of Deepa Devi. This also caused us to realize that in addition to the current biomass converters in the local vicinity, our solution could also support additional cooperatives that can enter into the biomass business, without adverse competition with each other. As we move forward we will keep this in mind and design our solution accordingly. Thank you so much for your contribution.

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