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Safi Sarvi – Localized, carbon-negative fertilizer production for restoring soil health and improving yield among rural smallholder farmers

We deploy small-scale systems that allow village-based production of high-yield fertilizer that regenerates the soil and improves yields.

Photo of Kevin Kung
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Safi Organics

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

OCP is the world’s largest fertilizer company. We are currently participating in OCP’s Impulse agri-tech entrepreneurship accelerator, where we are conducting human-centered design with different OCP teams about how the future vision of their work looks like for smallholder farmers in Africa. Takachar is a USA-based company whose specialty is in providing the technology and control system for small-scale, decentralized fertilizer production to create a local carbon-negative circular economy. Takachar will be our technical partner. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has provided third-party lab-based validation of our work and will continue to play a key role as we develop our solution. The Government of Kenya (especially County Government in Kirinyaga) has provided policy related support, in certifying our product as a standalone fertilizer, and in offering us tender to supply our fertilizer to farmers in its fertilizer subsidy program. It is our scaling partner.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

safiorganics.co.ke

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Wanguru

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Kenya

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Kirinyaga County

What country is your selected Place located in?

Kenya

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The majority of the Safi Organics founding team and the employees grew up in this place, so this is home to us. For generations, we and our families have been smallholder farmers (primarily rice growers) here. From the stories passed down from our grandparents, this land used to be much more fertile than it is right now. Over the past 30-40 years or so, the land has been gradually degraded and acidified by the improper application of cheap, low-quality, synthetic fertilizers, such that its yields have also been reduced. We are fearful of a future where the land will no longer be able to adequately support our families. Some of us, before joining Safi Organics, were still in smallholder farming. Some of us went to school in Nairobi, where we studied agriculture or agribusiness, because we wanted to be able to do something to help this land.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Kirinyaga County is one of the 47 counties of Kenya. The county has a population of around 530,000, growing at about 2%/year. Its main towns are best reached by Nairobi by the well-paved Thika highway, in a matter of 2-4 hours of travel time. There is high tourist traffic through the county, though mainly as a temporary rest stop on the way to Mount Kenya or other safari parks. The County has a minimum elevation of 1,160 meters above sea level. Its northern border is delineated by Mount Kenya (5,200 meters above sea level). Much of the water in Kirinyaga County is sourced from Mount Kenya. The County capital is Kutus. It is one of the least urbanized counties in Central Kenya, with an estimated 85% of the population living in non-urban areas. Agriculture is the county’s main economic output.

The indigenous people here are the Akirinyaga (a subsector of the Agikuyu). The two commonly spoken dialects are Kigichugu and Kindia, which come together to form the Gikirinyaga language. Traditional delicacies include irio or mataha, which consists of arrow roots mashed together with black beans (njahi) and fig-leaf gourd leaves (kahurura). Other common traditional staples include yam, cassava, sweet potato, bananas, and maize. However, increasingly these traditional crops are being replaced with rice monoculture.

Indeed, Kirinyaga lies mainly within the rice-growing belt of Kenya. The highly irrigated lands produce about half of Kenya’s rice supply (basmati 370), as a consequence of the Mwea Irrigation Scheme in colonial times. The irrigation is mostly fed by the Nyamindi and Thiba rivers. Commonly found irrigation systems include partially lined canals, earthen canals, and basin/flood irrigation. Kirinyaga’s largest town, Wanguru (or Mwea), has a population of 7,600, where many rice mills aggregate. Because of the high population density and the scarcity of land, most rice growers are smallholder in nature, with plot sizes around one to a few acres.

Beyond rice, in the higher elevations with cooler climate, coffee and tea can also be grown. Farmers sometimes also grow vegetables (tomatoes, French beans), row crops (horticulture), and maize. Along Sagana River, there is some fishing. Most of the produce is sold in the local market in Kutus or Wanguru. Excess produce can be sold in Nairobi, but the transportation cost is higher.

Meet Mr. Kibuchi, who holds a one-hectare rice farm. After harvest, he brings the rice to the nearby mill to de-husk and sell the rice. He then uses the income to buy other vegetables and food beyond rice for his family. Rice in this region is first grown in nurseries, and then planted into the field. Mr. Kibuchi uses chemical fertilizers such as DAP and urea. However, in recent years, he has seen his crop harvest yield decrease, and his soil has become highly acidified. He is concerned that if this trend persists, there may not be much food that can be grown on this land for his children.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

1207

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

530000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Today in Kirinyaga, rice is extensively grown in monoculture. In order for farmers to support this level of cultivation, significant fertilizer inputs are needed. Most fertilizers are imported from large-scale, centralized, and capital-intensive facilities mostly located in Europe, Morocco, and China. Because Kirinyaga is remote, as a result of the transportation and import mark-up, local farmers often pay 2-5 times the world price for their fertilizers. The local county government tries to subsidize the fertilizer, but for most farmers, access to subsidy is still not available. Due to their limited income, local farmers can often only afford the cheapest, synthetic, and low-quality varieties that over the long term may actually acidify and degrade their soil due to over-dependence. Due to leaching from the irrigated fields, while farmers spend significant amount of money applying fertilizer inputs, most of the nutrients actually escape from the field into the water. Farmers, as a result, often see their post-harvest yields decrease by up to 30-40% in the last 20 years. Because rice is grown mainly as a commercial crop, this has a drastic negative impacts on the farmers’ income. As most farmers are no longer growing the indigenous crops such as arrow roots and pulse, they also have to pay more to buy other non-rice food grown from outside the local area. Therefore, this reduced income from commercial rice sales has a direct impact on the local food security, leading to poorer diet. This challenge is close to our heart. Most of our team grew up in here and witnessed first-hand the soil degradation issues.

Large fertilizer companies such as OCP are acutely aware of these challenges. As they seek to enter and grow in the African market, they have turned their attention downstream the fertilizer value chain, to focus on the smallholder farmers. For example, through OCP’s Agri-Booster program, which was launched as a pilot near Kirinyaga in 2017, farmers were provided not only fertilizers and seeds, but also the ecosystem of services, including mobile soil testing, and customized fertilizer recommendation to optimize the soil health. OCP even contemplated using digital services such as satellite images and real-time market data to help farmers make more informed planting choices. However, the Agri-Booster program proved short-lived in Kenya. It still required bulky chemical fertilizers to be imported into Kenya, and due to some importation issues that ran afoul with the Kenyan government, the whole program was shut down by 2019. OCP hopes to re-launch the program in Kenya in the near future, but finds it very expensive to gather sufficient local soil data to scale the program effectively.

Towards 2050, we foresee the trends above to continue. Without any drastic intervention, the region is likely to become even more degraded. While the government, NGOs, and companies such as OCP are eager to help, they often do not have the right levers.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The central challenge in Kirinyaga is a food production system that is being slowly degraded, resulting in food insecurity, while external stakeholders (such as the government, NGOs, and fertilizer companies) are limited in what they can do.

Our vision is first and foremost aimed at reversing the soil degradation and restoring soil health for local farmers, by providing a process that allows the bulk of the fertilizer to be made from local crop residues that otherwise would be burned in open air. By adjusting the conversion reaction condition according to the local crop type and soil condition, we allow custom-tailoring of the fertilizer characteristics (e.g. pH, ionic activity) almost at a single-farm granularity. This corrects the soil pH and improves nutrient and moisture retention, thereby greatly reduces the chemical fertilizer that needs to be applied. By restoring the soil health, the local farmers, at the same price that they are currently paying for the fertilizer inputs, see their yields increase by ~30% and net income increase by ~70%. In order to get the (reduced amount of) chemical fertilizer component locally, we will work with OCP’s Agri-Booster program to introduce the custom-tailored blending at a reduced price. This will be overlaid with some of the AI/machine learning that OCP is building for agriculture, in order to provide the necessary historical and forecast data for each farmer to receive the optimized fertilizer blend.  

As farmers receive more income from farming, they can afford to put healthier food on their plates. The long-term goal is to revisit some of the ancestral high-nutrient food items in this community (such as pulses and arrow roots), and make these more desirable than the cheaper alternatives brought in from outside. Because of the custom-tailorable fertilizer application that makes the soil more robust, farmers are no longer dependent on a single fertilizer type for rice monoculture, but are free to return parts of their land to these traditional crops that, arguably, are more effectively grown in the Kirinyaga soil than rice. This will develop a more vibrant diet consisting of nutritious, locally grown food.

Finally, we will work with the local county and national-level government to scale our work. In the long term, as Kenya seeks to meet its carbon goals, the government will increasingly recognize regenerative agriculture practices such as ours as a key source of carbon sequestration. Our fertilizer is rich in recalcitrant carbon that stays in the soil for hundreds of years, and also increases soil carbon. With sufficient number of farmers practicing carbon-negative agriculture, a local carbon aggregator can be established that allows farmers to be financially paid for their self-certified carbon sequestration. This will go hand in hand with government policies that, instead of taxing farmers and farm products as any other business, will favor organic farming and potentially revenue-neutral carbon tax.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Foremost, instead of being dependent on cheap, low-quality chemical fertilizers, local farmers, at the same price that they pay for their fertilizer inputs, will have access to high-quality, custom-tailored fertilizers that are specifically designed for the crop type and soil condition of their farms. This blend is designed to counteract against the long-term soil degradation they have faced, by restoring soil pH, increasing its nutrient-holding capacity, and ultimately, crop yield. This also encourages more crop types than rice monoculture to be grown. Farming becomes a profitable enterprise that offers a nutritious variety of locally produced food.

Secondly, instead of reliant on cheap food brought in from outside, Kirinyaga will have the capability of growing its own ancestral food on the local soil. Some of this will replace rice monoculture, but we do not expect the overall rice output to decrease, due to the increased productivity from better fertilizer use. This will revive some of the forgotten traditional food, and in general, make such food more cheaply available in the local market.

Thirdly, regenerative agriculture, rather than a buzz word, will become the norm here. By carefully devising regenerative fertilizer blends that improves soil health and harvest yields, we do not need to convince farmers to practice regenerative agriculture. Rather, the merit will speak for itself in the additional cash that farmers will earn, and the additional food that they can put on the table. This will initially be a slow process, but the support of right government policy in favor organic farming and carbon sequestration will provide additional incentives for rapid adoption not only in Kirinyaga, but beyond.

Finally, we do not see large fertilizer companies such as OCP as competitors. Rather, our work will also enable them to achieve their long-term dream of gaining foothold in the African market in a way that is currently difficult for them to achieve without us.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050, meet Ms. Kibuchi (the eldest daughter of the Mr. Kibuchi with whom we currently work in our pilot). She recently inherited the land from her father. Initially it was entirely rice. In recent years, she and her father have gradually diversified parts of the land also to arrow roots. This is the first year that she experimented planting some avocado and macademia along the perimeter to act as wind breakers, and the results look great. After harvest, she looks at the market data on her tablet. She decides to keep most of the roots and avocado for her own consumption, and sell most of the rice. She brings the rice to the nearby mill for processing, where it is also sold. The sale is then also entered into the tablet, and verifies the correct amount has been credited from the rice mill to her account. She carries her own rice grain back to her home. With her harvest done, she contemplates the next season. Instead of leaving the land idle for another rice season, she wants to do a short-term crop of chickpea and black beans. According to the tablet, this will also return some nutrients back to the soil, based on her most recent crop/soil data as well as the forecast weather and market patterns for the next season. The tablet calculates her anticipated harvest yield and returns, as well as the specific fertilizer mix needed to achieve this. She sends this information to her “agrovet”, a nearby fertilizer input distributor whom she has known all her life. She also schedules a time for the agrovet to come by to deliver the customized fertilizer nutrients specifically for the chickpea and black beans, and to clean up the crop residues (rice straws, etc.) on her field. For many years, she and her father have stopped burning the crop residues after harvest—after all, why would one do that for a valuable nutrient to the soil?

The following day, while Ms. Kibuchi is out to Nairobi to settle some business affairs, her agrovet’s vehicle comes by, carrying both some customized fertilizer nutrients and the Safi Organics MiniPlant equipment in tow. First, the MiniPlant equipment takes down all the rice straws and converts the residues into a fertilizer component in a few hours’ time. Then this component is mixed with the customized nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, as well as the essential micronutrients that the agrovet brings into the final mix. There are two batches of fertilizers produced: one for the chickpeas and one as the black beans. The agrovet leaves all fertilizer mix on-site in labeled bags specifically identifiable to Ms. Kibuchi. The MiniPlant equipment also prints out certifiable QR code stickers that are attached to the bags to annotate the amount of recalcitrant carbon contained in the fertilizer mix. This code will be important later for Ms. Kibuchi to trade carbon credit. In the meanwhile, the agrovet, after completing the job, debits the fertilizer cost from Ms. Kibuchi’s account. On the other hand, Safi Organics, based on the MiniPlant operation data, credits Ms. Kibuchi’s account based on the amount of rice straws that has been processed, effectively paying her $20/ton for the residues. When Ms. Kibuchi returns to her farm in the evening, all the fertilizer-related and residue-related businesses have already been settled to her satisfaction. She stores the fertilizer mix in her shed. To celebrate her recent harvest, she invites some of her friends over to taste the newly grown avocadoes.

When the next planting season comes around, she first applies the specific fertilizer types to the right areas for her crop. After she applies the fertilizer, she takes a picture of the QR code and a picture of the soil with the fertilizer to upload onto her tablet. These data get sent to a carbon trading facility, and a large corporation buys her carbon credit which is then sent to her account. As her crop grows, every week, she takes pictures to send to be analyzed, and also takes some soil sample with a digital sampler. Her soil and crop data are then automatically updated for her next planting season’s fertilizer and crop recommendation.

This above is Ms. Kibuchi’s vision. In the meanwhile, the other stakeholders also have 2050 visions. Safi Organics will have grown to be a major provider of custom-tailored, locally produced fertilizer blends not only in Kirinyaga, but also in other similar and dissimilar communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Local youths in Kirinyaga, instead of having to move to Nairobi slum in order to find jobs, can now choose to stay in their ancestral village by working with our conversion process to help local farmers turn their crop residues into fertilizers. The local agrovets (agricultural input distributors), while serving their clients better, will have more diversified sources of income, becoming the veritable one-stop-shop for the local farmers. OCP will have a financially viable way of supplying its chemical components to these rural communities, aided by the digital agriculture tool that it is developing. The local and national government will have results to show for increased regional agricultural productivity, while meeting their carbon reduction goals.

The 2050 visions above address the six thematic areas in the following ways:

  • Environment: Our food system actively promotes agriculture that actively restores soil health rather than extracting the soil. This is done by financially incentivizing farmers with increased yields and income. Furthermore, our process of converting the local crop residues into fertilizer base promotes a circular economy that eliminates waste and the pollution stemming from open-air crop burning. Our carbon-rich fertilizer blend sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Improved soil health also leads to increased robustness against unpredictable and changing weather and rainfall patterns.  
  • Diets: Our food system--in particular the custom-tailored fertilizer blends that can support different types of crop other than rice--will break the dependency on rice monoculture, and enable farmers to grow their own food in more diversified way, and enable the local community to supply its own diet needs. Much of this food is traditional (such as arrow roots) that arguably is also more advantageous for the local soil than rice monoculture. Farmers, by increasing the yield and income on rice, will be able to choose to use their income to buy other types of food not available in their community if needed.
  • Economics: Our food system, by building a circular waste-to-fertilizer economy, will also build a host of new jobs around agriculture, from the processing of the residues to the delivery of custom-tailored nutrient recipes. Rural underemployed youths, rather than having to migrate to Nairobi slum in order to find jobs, can choose to stay in their ancestral villages and work gainfully.
  • Culture: Instead of being dependent on cheap, imported food, there will be a shift in preference for ancestral food in the Kirinyaga region, much of which can be locally grown alongside rice. This will increase the variety and enjoyment of food. By disproportionately increasing the performance of highly degraded soil that historically belong to women and other marginalized groups, they will be economically empowered and also become landowners rather than renters. By integrating technology and automating much of the laborious process, in our food system, a profession in agriculture will be as sexy for the tech-savvy youths as the other professions.
  • Technology: In our food system, despite the technology, the farmer is still deeply rooted to the land, and is responsible for making all decisions informed by technology. The increased yield and income allow farmers to afford (rent and/or purchase) hardware technology to mechanize and automate laborious processes. Our hardware technology allows localized production of custom-tailored fertilizer from crop residues. Furthermore, digital technology will compile historical and forecast data for the farmers, allowing them to make better planting decisions and recommending the optimal fertilizer blend for the required crop type and soil health.
  • Policy: We see government subsidies go away. Instead of taxing smallholder farmers the same way as businesses, these arcane policies will be replaced by those that reward organic and carbon-negative agriculture.


To achieve the full vision above, here are the initial steps that Safi Organics (the lead applicant) and its partners are taking. Safi Organics has set up an initial village-based fertilizer production pilot that currently serves 3,200 local farmers in Kirinyaga. The formulation was made initially for the rice crop, but we have since created new formulations for vegetables and other common local crops. Based on survey from 97 farmers, the yields have improved by an average of 27%. As of 2019, the pilot has shown to be financially self-sustainable. Takachar has provided the initial conversion technology (NanoTorr) for Safi Organics to deploy, which is being followed up by a second-generation, higher-performance technology (MicroTorr) by mid-2020, sponsored by Total and Tata Trusts. We have been working closely with the Kenyan government. As of 2019, the government officially certified our blend as standalone fertilizer. As of 2020, the county government issued us a $58,000 tender to supply our fertilizer to 1,000 farmers in its fertilizer subsidy program, which we successfully fulfilled. We are closely working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on testing the efficacy and chemical constitution in their lab, research that is funded by Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center. Finally, in January 2020 we were selected by OCP in its first agri-tech accelerator program. We are currently discussing a potential partnership with OCP, which is developing customizable chemical blends and digital solutions for farmers powered by AI/machine learning.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (7)

FieldTestResults.pdf

Individual post-harvest yield results from 97 farmers using the Safi Organics customizable fertilizer blend. The average yield increase is 27%.

CropTestResults.pdf

Preliminary results from third-party scientific research carried out at Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing customizable fertilizer blend improves wheat yields.

MITNews.pdf

News article describing the MIT research, carried out by Prof. Ahmed Ghoniem and this submission's author (Kevin Kung)

pagination_FUPROC_106362.pdf

Third-party scientific publication from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the basis of the Takachar technology used here, demonstrating ability to fine-tune reaction condition and design output products of various characteristics.

Paper2.pdf

Third-party scientific publication from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the basis of the Takachar technology used here, demonstrating ability to fine-tune reaction condition and design output products of various characteristics.

Paper1b.pdf

Third-party scientific publication from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the basis of the Takachar technology used here, demonstrating the initial laboratory-scale prototype and its functionality.

Paper1a.pdf

Third-party scientific publication from Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the basis of the Takachar technology used here, demonstrating the initial laboratory-scale prototype and its functionality.

9 comments

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Spam
Photo of Mo Bangura
Team

like your idea very much - we are using azolla and biochar for fertilizer would you like to collaborate? You will find azolla very useful as can be grown anywhere, doubles in biomass every few days - top nitrogen fixer and CO2 absorber, also very nutrious protein rich poultry and animal feed.

Spam
Photo of Kevin Kung
Team

Yes, happy to explore collaboration! You can reach us at info at safiorganics dot co dot ke

Spam
Photo of Mo Bangura
Team

wiil do and thanks!

Spam
Photo of Mo Bangura
Team

Hi again think I have it from this message!
info@safiorganics.co.ke

Spam
Photo of Mo Bangura
Team

Hi again Kevin have you an email so we can get in touch? Mine is mo.bangura@hope4ebolaorphans.org
Kind Regards Mo

Spam
Photo of michael akande
Team

Hi Kevin,
You have a very good vision and I like the fact that it can replenish the soil over a long time. Keep up the good work and best of luck.

Spam
Photo of Kevin Kung
Team

Thank you Michael!

Spam
Photo of Kehinde Fashua
Team

Welcome Kevin Kung to the Prize community and thank you for your submission. The following tips will help you build a stronger vision for Kirinyaga County;
It will be great to see pictures, photos, videos and other visual materials about your chosen Place.
You should also explain how your Vision will address the 6 themes; Culture, diet, technology, economics, environment, Policy in your place? And do not forget to be futuristic in your presentation.
The Prize tool kit on pages 9, 13 &14 details how your Visions will be evaluated against other criteria.
https://tinyurl.com/wzbavw8

You can always update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020. I look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming days

Spam
Photo of Kevin Kung
Team

Thanks a lot for the helpful comments!