Start a Biochar Business

Biochar is charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil both as a “soil amendment” (improve its physical properties) and as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So we are talking about a product that helps plants with water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration, structure, and not something you braai with. If you are wondering about the difference between biochar, charcoal, and activated charcoal you can read this.

What is biochar made from
Biochar is made from burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes (often called biomass or plant matter). So this can be branches, twigs, weeds etc.

How is biochar made
Biochar is made using a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis involves placing the biomass into a special oven before heating in the presence of little or no oxygen. The result is a stable solid material rich in carbon content that can effectively capture carbon and lock the carbon into the soil.

What is required
This is a straightforward business, but there is some knowledge required in the pyrolysis process, with there being some debate around the “best ovens” and process to use. But there is ample information available to make an informed decision.

You need a constant source of plant matter or biomass, and you obviously need a place to burn it, this will suit a farming or smallholding environment. I have researched alternatives such as water hyacinth, this is one of those businesses that can be run with little overheads if the material can be sourced for free.

I have read some studies on creating biochar from water hyacinth which is an interesting proposition to create biochar from this pest weed. One study reckons that “maize seedling vigour index increased from 1.0 at control to 1.61 in 20 g/kg EBC treatment”. EBC means Eichornia biochar (the scientific name for water hyacinth is eichornia crassipes), you may also see the term WHB being used (Water Hyacinth Biochar).

How to sell biochar
If biochar is all you are making then you need to be able to scale it to match your income needs and to sell it B2B or wholesale. Now not everyone can produce a ton at a time, but selling 5l (roughly 1kg at a time) is not worthwhile if you can only sell a few a day. Depending on the product, when selling small business wholesale you sell a minimum 10x retail or even 100x. In this case, we see exactly that retail packaging is 5L and we see 50L bags being sold. 50L bags seems a good way to package bulk, so one 50L bag will make 10x5L and 10x 50L bags will make 100x5L. There does seem to be an opportunity right now to buy wholesale and repackage. We are seeing 100L sold for R450 (R22.50 per 5L), and 5l sold for R50. There does appear to be meat on the bone for everyone, manufacture wholesale, retail. How popular this product is locally I am not sure, because even if you sell wholesale to retailers, those retailers need to move product so they can reorder from you.

Now it is important to note that soil quality differs from area to area, there is some soil that will grow any crop and there is soil that needs all the help it can get. And you need to operate in places where the soil needs help but there is some growing activity. If you compare the fertile Ceres Valley to the dry sandy Cape Flats then the latter would obviously be a better market to sell soil amendment, you would assume so, yet if there is alomost no commercial growing happening there (save for a few plots in Phillipi) then you might very well be suited to sell in a  fertile area where there is growing happening.

Target market
Locally we see biochar being sold for by nurseries and hardware for general gardening and farming, dagga growing, and even hydroponics where it “optimizes water quality and maintain nutrient solution around plant roots in hydroponics systems by reducing/eliminating algal growth in hydroponics containers”. For some reason it does seem popular in the cannabis shops, apparently, it creates a “happy habitat” for cannabis plants. I note this because I see TheGrowBro and Homegro Depot all selling biochar. I don’t grow so I wouldn’t know but it does open more markets: home growers of dagga. Your biochar can even be included in starter packs to start growing.

Image credit: Oregon Department of Forestry

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