Beyond Barrels: Investing In Scale

Since our founding, back in 2010, we have produced charcoal from a variety of agricultural wastes—sugarcane bagasse, corn stover and husk, bean stalks, rice hulls.  And from the beginning, we've focused on locally-sourced, simple technologies for converting the waste into charcoal dust.  Eventually, after much trial, error, and iteration, our team arrived at the simplest, cheapest tool for subjecting biomass to pyrolysis—that is, carbonizing waste—which is little more than a repurposed 55 gallon steel barrel with some strategically cut holes, placed over a hole in the ground. It's cheap, easy to use, and readily replaceable in any country on Earth. But, as we've grown from making a few kilograms of charcoal to producing several tons per day, it's become clear that for all its features, a barrel kiln is not scalable. 

Barrel kilns at our production site in northern Haiti.

Barrel kilns at our production site in northern Haiti.

Charcoal is a consumable good, as opposed to a durable good like a cookstove. To be successful in the consumables business, a company has to produce at high volume.  After running the numbers, we determined that we likely need to produce and sell at least 75 tons of green charcoal per week, which is more than a 10-fold increase over our current production. This is why, last year, we set out to find a cleaner, safer, more efficient way to make charcoal from agricultural waste.

It turns out that the list of commercially viable equipment that reliably and efficiently converts agricultural waste to charcoal is very short (if we were using wood, the list is significantly longer).  Eventually, we zeroed in on a pyrolysis technology produced in Australia that showed promise.  We went to Vietnam to see it in action, test it with a variety of feedstocks, and judge the feasibility of using it in Haiti.  Ultimately, we concluded that this continuous-feed pyrolysis technology was the best option available.  To reach our target production volume, we'd need six pyrolysis units at our current factory, at a total cost of about $750,000. Now the question: how were we going to pay for it?

It was immediately clear that it was unlikely we'd be able to raise traditional grant funds for this type of expense.  Spending that amount of money on equipment—especially in Haiti—is something that very few charitable foundations are comfortable or able to do. And because the technology is specialized and untested in Haiti, we determined that impact investors would need to see it in operation before investing in our scale up plans. So we approached USAID's DIV program, who was one of our largest funders, and proposed that they help us purchase and install one pyrolysis unit, which would de-risk the investment in Carbon Roots for impact investors who were interested in our work but wary of the operational risks involved. Essentially, they put up the riskiest capital, and we'll go raise the rest.

Our new continuous-feed pyrolysis system being tested before shipment from the factory.

Our new continuous-feed pyrolysis system being tested before shipment from the factory.

After two years of research and planning, and a year of contract negotiations, we are happy to announce that in January 2017 we'll be taking the next step towards charcoal world domination and installing (as far as we can tell) the first continuous-feed pyrolysis equipment for charcoal production in Central America. At full capacity, it will produce about 10 tons of charcoal per week, while also providing heat to dry incoming agricultural waste, outgoing green charcoal briquettes, and boiling water. It also represents the final link in the scalable value chain we've spent the last few years building in Haiti, from the small holder farmers who sell us their agricultural waste, all the way down to our women retailers and household customers. 

We anticipate having our new equipment up and running in February, at which point we'll spend the following months raising funds to dramatically increase our green charcoal production and sales, with a goal of launching a second production factory in Haiti in 2018. 

This next year is gearing up to be the biggest, busiest, and most important year in the short life of our organization, during which we'll likely grow to be the largest green charcoal organization in the world. Ultimately, the upshot is that with our increased capacity to make green charcoal, we'll be able to create much more positive social and environmental impact in Haiti, and hopefully demonstrate how green charcoal can be successful in other countries across the developing world!

WATCH: Carbon Roots Featured on Haitian Travel TV Show

In June we were visited by Frere Joel Trimble, a longtime resident of Haiti who produces and hosts a Haitian travel show with his wife, called La Bonne Nouvelle.  Frere Joel and his wife Yvonne spent several days shooting at our site and around Cap-Haitien, and just released the Okap (a Creole nickname for Cap-Haitien) episode.  Check out Ryan show off his Creole skills!

La Bonne Nouvelle is seen on Haitian TV by over 2 million Haitians!  The exposure is great for our Chabon Vet product.  We also really love the way Frere Joel and Yvonne show a different side of Haiti than you normally see on TV—a country full of color, laughter, good food and beautiful vistas.  

Carbon Roots Co-Founder Eric Sorensen interviewed on KEXP radio segment

Eric looking at tree in La Coupe demo plot

A few weeks ago, on a rainy Seattle morning, I headed downtown to the KEXP studios to chat with Diane Horn, who hosts the weekly 30-minute Sustainability Segment.  I was excited to have the opportunity to chat about our work for longer than the usual media interview, and also because I'm a longtime listener and supporter of KEXP.

Head on over to iTunes to download the podcast of our interview!

CROSS-POST: Let's tell the other story of Haiti

Katalina with CRI staff.

Katalina with CRI staff.

This is a cross-post from TheYouFinder.com, the website of our friend and colleague Katalina Mayorga.  We've been working with Katalina on and off for over a year now, and she recently visited us in Haiti and helped lead us through some crucial branding strategizing and capacity building.  

I am back from an incredibly productive and invigorating trip to Haiti, visiting the Carbon Roots International (CRI) team and the many other stakeholders along their green charcoal supply chain.  I have discussed their innovative business model in this past blog post.

There were too many “aha” moments then I can count, and thus, there is much for me to reflect on. I can guarantee that I will be publicly documenting this reflection process through the blog so thank you in advance for bearing with me. I guess I will start with this– I come back feeling that the media and the field of international development have unfairly let the ills of extreme poverty and failed development dominate the story of Haiti. Yes, there is a lot of that, but there is a much more hopeful and exciting narrative that unfortunately is rarely highlighted. This is the story of the many Haitian protagonists who are hustling and doing everything in their power to create the future they want for themselves and their families. These individuals are not idly waiting for some multimillion-dollar development or government program to one day benefit them, but are proactive in creating opportunity out of very little. I saw this entrepreneurial and creative spirit all around me.

Tita with her fellow producers.

Tita with her fellow producers.

Take for example the story of Tita, CRI’s first female char producer I had the privilege of meeting. When she realized she could easily earn extra income by turning agricultural waste into a product of value, she did not only start doing this herself, but additionally, she organized and trained a collective of women within her community to start producing char alongside herself. She knew that banning together they could streamline the production process, yield more char than if they worked individually, and thus earn more money. She did not have to attend a workshop to “teach” her how to become an entrepreneur and a better businesswoman, being an entrepreneur and developing more efficient processes was second nature to Tita. Tita saw this opportunity and acted on it because as she said in her own words, "I know that when I get paid on Saturday for the bags of char I produce, I can then feed my kids and pay for their education on Sunday."

As we walked away from Tita’s community, I could not help but be reminded how often aid programs undervalue the human capital of creativity and great ideas that already exists within a community; how often they fail to leverage the knowledge of those that they are trying to work with. Tita is one of several people I met in Haiti that demonstrate the tremendous opportunity to do this and consequentially promote a different framework for international development; a framework where we switch the role of the “technical expert” and “beneficiary.” The experts should not be seen as professionals from the outside, but instead the “beneficiaries” themselves.  They understand the challenges their community confronts, what they want and desire as parents, women, consumers, and possess the smarts it takes to uplift their community. They understand these simple but important factors better than any of us from the outside could. So what is our role as international development professionals? I believe our role is to simply be a facilitator, a medium for them to express their ideas, have their ideas be heard, and then incorporated into the business model. Our role is to continuously tell the story of Tita so that this untraditional framework becomes second nature to us international development professionals.

Until next time,

Katalina

CRI opens new green charcoal production factory!

Production building

The next time you find yourself in north Haiti, Carbon Roots International would like to invite you to visit our biochar and green charcoal production center in Quartier Morin on the outskirts of Cap-Haitien!  We have an 9 acre plot of land where we are working on all sorts of awesome projects, such as green charcoal briquette production, biochar test gardens with local crops, and even the two cutest guard puppies you’ve ever seen!

Under the supervision of our Site Coordinator, Ben Gonel Ambroise, CRI completed construction of our large, open-air briquetting building this past June.  Here, six days a week, our staff members produce our “Charbon Vert” green charcoal briquettes using a variety of press technologies and techniques.  We have rehabilitated an abandoned structure to construct a storage depot for safe keeping of our equipment and inventory.  All construction on our property rehabilitates old buildings as opposed to building new ones, so we can be sure en minimize our local impact and our consumption of construction materials!

Our Chief of Biochar Investigations, Saint-Ano Jean-Louis, began planting biochar test gardens on our site in July.  Beginning with a rigorous study of biochar’s effects on various strains of tomatoes, we’ve expanded to five different biochar trial plots on our site, testing cassava, papaya, peppers, and peanuts.

Crew poses after planting tree

Through a generous contribution from our partners at USAID, we’ve planted nearly 300 local species of trees throughout our project site.  Site Coordinator Ben Gonel Ambroise has a degree in landscape architecture and ensured that the tree planting will not only ensure the healthy growth of our almond, mango, palm, and pine trees, but that they will also be arranged throughout the property in an aesthetically pleasing way!

SOIL, a Haitian-based compost production organization, recently provided us with a brand new composting toilet for our site.  We’re excited to reduce our waste impact and begin to produce compost to help farmers throughout the region sustainably improve their crop yields.

So let us know next time you’re in the neighborhood and visit us at our project site.  And be sure to meet our site security guards Jean and Anius, who both have just about the biggest smiles every day.  Fair warning: there’s a good chance Jean will try to hug you when you meet him!