Takachar: Freeing rural farmers’ unhealthy dependence on expensive imported fertilizers

Kibera Slum, Nairobi, KenyaCambridge, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Takachar works with existing/new local entrepreneurial groups in urban slums to bring waste management to the poor households who otherwise cannot afford waste pick-up services. The local groups sort the waste into different value streams, and we convert the organic waste into charcoal. By doing so, we address wide-ranging problems from income generation, greenhouse emissions, to deforestation.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if rural farmers can make their own fertilizers in 30 minutes?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

There are two separate problems facing many slums: unmanaged waste and fuel (charcoal) shortage. While many local entrepreneurial groups already attempt to address these problems, they are often not efficient. For example, entrepreneurial groups in the Kibera slum in Nairobi already collect waste from households (for a fee), but only few slum households can afford to pay, so the subscription for this service is low. Moreover, these entrepreneurial groups also turn organic waste (e.g. sawdust/paper) into alternative fuel briquettes to sell. Most of these briquettes emit copious smoke, which makes indoor cooking unsafe (health hazard). Thus, most of Kibera’s 200 ton/day of waste remains unmanaged, and at the same time, slum households are spending 45% of their income on scarce cooking fuel.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We recognize that the local entrepreneurial groups have an excellent framing of a vast opportunity: turning unmanaged waste into valuable fuel. We are working, in a participatory manner, with these groups to improve both the service (waste management) and the product (fuel). In particular, we are innovating a process to turn a more robust range of organic waste into carbonized briquettes. This stands in contrast to the uncarbonized briquettes that all local groups currently produce because carbonized briquettes emit almost no smoke and behave indiscernibly from to charcoal, a common cooking fuel. Recognizing that centralized quality control of the briquettes is key, we purchase the organic waste from the local entrepreneurial groups such that they would earn even more income than if they turned the equal amount of waste into uncarbonized briquettes themselves. Through a process of grinding, drying, pyrolyzing, and briquetting, we convert the waste into high-quality and safe briquettes.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

A local group that chooses to work with us will first become more efficient in waste management. In our studies, we found that while there is tacit knowledge in waste collection within the local groups such as the optimal routes and service fee structure, such knowledge is often lost due to rapid turnover in the group membership, so that the approaches by different members are often haphazard. We use GPS tracking tags to spatially map the collection routes to identify underserved customers, and knowing the spatially uneven income distribution within the slum, work out a waste collection pricing structure that will increase the customer size. For example, since the group can earn income simply by selling the waste they collect, it may make sense to provide the waste collection for free for the poorest neighborhoods. The increased customer base (from 100 to about 250 households per group) will allow the groups to operate at full capacity (currently most groups work part-time and need to find other odd jobs). Many groups already sort their garbage, but if not, then we train the groups to separate waste into different streams (plastic/metal to sell to recycling plants, and organic waste to sell to us). We arrange for daily collection of organic waste at fixed time from the local groups, and inspect the sorted organic waste for quality control. Groups that consistently turn in quality organic waste will receive higher compensation (up to 2000 Ksh/ton of organic waste) from us. We estimate that a group operating at full capacity can triple each member’s income compared to before.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

So far we have sold more than 15 tons of our product, which has shown to be profit-making. We actually have farmers who are willing to drive more than 50 km to pick up our product. This has helped the community save more than US$500. Not only that, our project has also managed more than 60 tons of discarded farm waste, which would otherwise have been set on fire to create toxic pollution and contribute towards urban smog. This is equivalent to roughly 80 tons of averted greenhouse gas and particulate emissions into the atmosphere. Furthermore, we have also engaged in extensive training and dissemination of our biochar converter in various communities such as Rumuruti, Nairobi, Machakos, Meru, and Mombasa. One community, for example, pooled together their resources and invested in more than 70 biochar converters amongst themselves.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

To maximize our impact, we have made our $20 biochar converter open-source without patents, so that any farmer can locally manufacture the converter from his/her village metalworker. This helps us eliminate the barrier in setting up our own manufacturing process and distribution channel. On the other hand, our unique fortification recipe is being made at a central facility and will be distributed via agricultural partners and anchor institutions throughout Kenya and beyond. To scale beyond Kenya, we will use the commissioned agent model, and are already talking to potential partners.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our primary profit-making source is the revenue from our fortifying recipe, which we distribute to the farmers to mix with their fertilizers to complete the soil. On the other hand, the dissemination of low-cost biochar converters is being done on a cost-recovery basis (e.g. not-for-profit) and is designed to maximize reach. We need a 150 tons/month production to be cash positive, and in the meanwhile, we rely on grant money to bridge the gap.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Various alternative fuels are produced by existing local entrepreneurial groups in the market, but many of them (such as paper-and-sawdust briquettes) are very unpopular because they are uncarbonized and emit noxious smoke (most of Kibera cooks indoors). Other options, such as "mawe" (charcoal/clay), burn so slowly that they still depend on charcoal to sustain the heat. We learned from these prior pitfalls and carefully optimize our briquettes via lab tests and focus groups. Beside us, TakaTaka and Sanergy are the only other organization we know that engages local waste-managing groups. Unlike us, they do not increase the groups' current capacity, nor do they purchase waste from them, and their final products are fertilizer (TakaTaka) and electricity (Sanergy), not cooking fuel.

Founding Story

The idea was seeded when I visited Kibera in March 2011 during a global health consulting project, and noticed endless charcoal being traded by the roadside. A casual conversation with our community partner Carolina for Kibera revealed that charcoal is causing huge environmental and economic problems, and CFK would like to start an urban waste-to-briquette project with the local groups but lacked the technical expertise. Back in MIT, I worked with D-Lab's charcoal-making method and started experimenting it in the context of urban waste. I also talked to numerous people at MIT's international development circle, who became really excited by the project's potential. The breakthrough moment came during a networking night in November 2011, when I met Libby McDonald, our project's current mentor. Libby has been working with urban waste for many years, and together we realized that the real potential for this project is its applicability to almost all types of organic waste, worldwide.


Samuel Rigu has been an agricultural manager in Kenya. In the past, as an entrepreneur, he has partnered with a large mosquito coil manufacturer and successfully sold more than one million mosquito coils. Kevin Kung is a current MIT PhD student whose research focuses on making better biochar from waste. Kevin has had 3 years of business experience in Kenya, and currently sits on the advisory board of Greenchar (a Kenyan company).
About You
About You
About Your Organization
Organization Name


Organization Country

, MA, Cambridge, Middlesex County

Country where this project is creating social impact

, NA, Kibera Slum, Nairobi

Age of Innovator


Gender of Innovator


How long has your organization been operating?

Less than a year

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How long have you been in operation?

Operating for less than a year

Social Impact
What solution(s) does your initiative address to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses grow and thrive in underserved communities? (select all applicable)

Access to supply chains, Access to technology, Access to economic opportunity.

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

Takachar is the second generation of the charcoal project developed at MIT's D-Lab, which has been implemented in about 20 developing countries, such as Haiti (66 workshops, 1000 producers), Rwanda, China, and Niger. In Jan 2012, Takachar's "dry run" charcoal-making pilot in Rumuruti was highly successful: since then, the project has taken off in two villages (about 2000 people each), creating 20 new jobs (to replace illegal logging). Recently, Takachar and the Rumuruti Forest Association received a US$37500 UNDP grant, a major component of which is to expand the charcoal project to 7 other villages around Rumuruti, consisting of 19000 houses. In Kibera, since June 2012, Takachar has been working with the Zulu Youth Group to sort organic waste and make charcoal, with exciting initial results. The production of charcoal briquettes has already started, currently at 10 kg/day. After we optimize the charcoal binder, the product will go to market at the end of 2012.

What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?

Our project will fully engage existing/new local entrepreneurial groups in Kibera's waste management. Currently, many local groups are under-capacity which means that the members need to find other odd jobs to supplement their income. By 2013, our partner group's work will require 25 full-time members, as opposed to the current 15 part-time members (covering the waste management of 250 houses). By 2014, there will be 250 more job opportunities via local groups or Takachar, managing the waste of 5000 households.

At this scale, we can properly manage 10 tons/day of urban waste in Kibera, triple the income of the members of the partnering entrepreneurial groups, mitigate 8 tons/day of greenhouse CO2 equivalent, and save 3500 trees/year.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

- Households may prefer wood charcoal over our briquettes. We are optimizing our briquettes' properties via lab tests and focus groups where the households cook meals using our briquettes, for us to get feedback. In the worst case where briquetting fails, Kibera also has a market for charcoal dust.
- In parts of rural Kenya, cleaner wood-burning stoves are making charcoal redundant. We do not see this happening soon in Kibera, where firewood is even more scarce than charcoal.
- If Kibera becomes richer, then charcoal will be replaced by other fuels. In that case, we can easily retrofit our facility to produce biogas/electricity instead.
- Displacing jobs in the current charcoal supply chain is insignificant, as Kibera's charcoal trade is so large that we will only occupy a small share.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Fully implement the waste-sourcing model with one pilot local entrepreneurial group (Zulu Youth Group).

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Task 1

Complete mapping the collection routes and engage in conversation with the group regarding potential expansion.

Task 2

Discuss and potentially improve on the waste collection pricing structure based on the spatial distribution of income.

Task 3

Complete the piloting of small-scale charcoal production, focusing on optimizing the briquette properties for marketability.

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Extend our waste management service to 2000 households in two villages in Kibera.

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Task 1

Identify (or form) 3 more local waste-managing groups in the targeted catchment area and work with their specific needs.

Task 2

In partnership with CFK, undertake a massive community marketing campaign (door-to-door, community forums, SMS, etc.)

Task 3

Raise sufficient funds (US$50000) to construct a centralized charcoal production facility with a 1 ton/day capacity.

Tell us about your partnerships

We are partnering with Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a well-respected Kibera-based NGO that has access to a network of local groups in its "Trash Is Cash" program, which has waste management as their top priority. CFK also regularly holds community forums/door-to-door campaigns, which we can use for publicity/marketing. We partner with the Nairobi Fab Lab to develop technical/engineering designs together in the local context. We have also collaborated on a research protocol with Dr. Gichuhi's group at the University of Nairobi, which is interested in monitoring and evaluating our impact.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list

From our experience with different charcoal projects, we can also offer consulting (a) for groups wanting to start their charcoal projects from organic waste, or (b) for existing projects to use our lab set-up to characterize their briquettes for emission safety. We have already collaborated on a consulting project with the Inter-American Development Bank in Haiti, with revealing results.