Here’s how ‘black gold’ is giving India’s farmers new hope and trying to save the planet

Biochar offers new hope to farmers and the environment.

The ancient Amazonians knew a thing or two on how to preserve soil fertility. Simply mixing their topsoil with a charcoal-like substance, helped maintain long-term fertility, for 100s of years. They had many names for this soil amendment substance and referred to it as ‘black gold’, ‘Terra Preta de Indios,’ and ‘dark earth’. This 2000-year phenomenon was studied by Wim Sombroek, a soil scientist in the 1950s, during his visit to Amazonia. Sombroek devoted his entire life to researching it, and even wrote a book in 1966, titled Amazon Soils. Thanks to his pioneering efforts, the world has rediscovered this ancient practice, and led to the creation of a similar substance called biochar.

Sagar Bhansali was working for Siemens in Dubai when he read about a biochar pilot project in the US that had scientists excited about its prospects in boosting soil fertility and reducing carbon emissions. Buoyed by what he discovered, he read and researched this new product more, and was soon obsessed with its application in India. Despite having no experience in agricultural sciences, based on just his gut, Bhansali, an MBA with an engineering background quit his job in Siemens in July last year. He spoke to his school friend Aaakash Agarwal about the project, Bhansali’s enthusiasm rubbed off on Agarwal, who immediately agreed to come on board. The two founded Anulekh Agrotech in August 2012 with the aim to manufacture biochar in India.

Bhansali compensated for his lack of agricultural acumen by engaging with Saibhaskar Reddy, a scientist who had done the first Biochar trials and testing in India, and made him part of the advisory board. He also telephoned Johannes Lehmann, the pioneering US-based scientist, who had first conducted these tests in the US, to get his opinion. Bhansali and his team test piloted the product on 25-30 demo plots. The initial challenge was to convince farmers, who were wary about doing something new, especially the small and marginal farmers. Farmers with medium-sized plots were keener, and took up Bhansali’s offer of using their product on one half of the field, while continuing with their regular practice on the other half.

The results have been very encouraging so far. “In the field trials we found that using our product leads to 25 percent less use of chemical and water, a 25 per cent increase in yield in the first year,” says Bhansali. This goes up by 50 to 100 percent in 2-3 years as more of the product is remains in the soil due to increased water retention. Bhansali also claims that the use of chemical and fertilizer requirement goes down by 50 per cent in 3-4 years as the soil becomes more fertile. “Biochar stays in soil for well over 100 years,” adds Bhansali.

Based on their learning from the field they have come out with the first proprietary product called BIOSAT (Biochar based Organic Soil amendment technology) that is sold in bags of 50 kg each. Biochar is mixed with Anulekh’s secret sauce made up of different organic nutrients. Anulekh uses corn cobs and different kinds of woods to make this product. Biochar benefits both farmer and the environment by preserving soil fertility, trapping carbon emissions, and maintaining the strength of the topsoil.

The efficacy of biochar has been the subject of numerous research studies globally and the majority of the findings support the positive claims. Various research institutions like the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) and the British Biochar Foundation have been set up to support further studies on the subject. Anulekh has tied up with multiple research institutes and agricultural universities to conduct more field trails. Agricultural university Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, in Maharashtra is studying data from the field to independently verify Anulekh’s claims. The results are expected in the next month or two.

After starting product development last year, Anulekh had started distributing Western Maharashtra and Southern Gujarat and has signed up 7-8 dealers and hopes to end the year with 20 dealers. Currently, manufacturing is outsourced, but in the next 3-4 years, Bhansali plans to invest Rs 5-6 crore to set up their own unit. Having bootstrapped their startup so far, they are in advanced discussions with various angels and social impact funds, to raise $200-300,000 (approximately Rs 1.2 to Rs 1.8 crore). The money will be used to expand the team and set up an R&D centre.

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