Scaling Biochar: Investing in Soils, Improving Livelihoods and Sequestering Carbon

$99,952 | Kenya | Stage 1

The problem: As much as 65% of Sub-Saharan Africa's soil on agricultural land is degraded, threatening the livelihoods of the 70% of Africans who are involved in agriculture. Crop yields and lower and fertilizers are less efficient under these conditions, meaning that recent calls for a new green revolution for Africa are unlikely to be successful if soil degradation is not arrested. 

The solution: Biochar, a charcoal powder, can reverse soil fertility decline, improve crop yields, and improve plant response to fertilizer. Using low-cost kilns, farmers may be able to generate their own biochar to improve their soil quality. 

Potential cost effectiveness: Preliminary research found that biochar adoption by farmers increased yields by approximately 23% in the first season of application, and 30% a year later. PA researchers will pilot and rigorously evaluation the livelihood benefits of a farm-level biochar production kiln that costs between $25 and $40 per unit, and study how social networks stimulate "viral" technology adoption. 


Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from extensive soil degradation, threatening the livelihoods of the 70% of Africans who are involved in agriculture. Crop yields and lower and fertilizers ar less efficient under these conditions, meaning that recent calls for a new green revolution for Africa are unlikely to be successful if soil degradation is not arrested. Estimates suggest that as much as 65% of agricultural land in Africa is at least somewhat degraded.

Researchers have shown that by adding charcoal dust – which can be produced from crop residues and other wastes – to soil, they can reverse soil fertility decline, improve crop yields, and improve plant response to fertilizer. Termed “biochar,” the benefits of this charcoal powder and its low production cost make it an important strategy for agricultural development and sustainable land management, and a potentially significant tool for reducing greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon in soil. 

The technology has strong preliminary evidence to support its impact.  Research has found that early adoption by farmers increased yields by approximately 23% in the first season of application, and 30% a year later. However, there is a need to make the technology scalable – the distribution network for biochar is diffuse and difficult to build up, so it may prove most expedient to allow farmers to produce and apply the biochar themselves, using a low-cost kiln and inputs that are readily accessible on most farms.

With Stage 1 support from DIV, IPA researchers in partnership with Re:char, a social enterprise, and the African Christians Organizations Network, a Kenyan-based NGO, will pilot and rigorously evaluate the livelihood benefits of a farm-level biochar production kiln that costs between $25 and $40 per unit. Researchers will also use a randomized control trial to study how social networks stimulate ‘viral’ technology adoption.  Up to 1,000 farmers will participate in the study, which will yield greater understanding of biochar’s potential as a farm-level tool, and greater understanding of how to speed adoption of environmentally friendly technologies. 

To learn more: 

  • Watch a CNN video about how biochar works
  • Follow the product's development on Re:char's blog
  • Read the working paper from the preliminary research 

Last updated: February 20, 2013

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