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FEATURE STORY November 1, 2018

Kenyan Start-Up Provides Clean, Cheap Solution to Enrich Soil, Fight Pollution

Safi Organics turns agricultural waste into carbon-negative soil conditioner, which restores crop soils that have been acidified by decades of chemical fertilizer use.

This feature is an outcome of infoDev, a multi-donor program administered by the World Bank Group, with a focus on entrepreneurs in developing economies. This piece was originally published on August 24, 2017. 

Farming is a tough business. Growing up on a rural Kenyan farm, Samuel Rigu saw firsthand how the acidity of the expensive, imported fertilizers was damaging the soil and reducing crop yields over time. It seemed the only available solution to maintain crop productivity was also sowing the seeds of their demise. 

Rigu eventually left the farm to study agribusiness management at the University of Nairobi. After graduation, he began working at an international non-profit as a farm manager, and regularly trained farmers on different techniques and best practices.

Business solution to pollution?

While visiting Kenya’s leading rice producing region, Mwea, Rigu noticed that farmers were disposing of tons of agricultural waste, such as rice husks, through open-air burning, creating toxic pollutants.

He quickly became determined to find a solution. He quit his job to launch his first business. After trying to turn rice husks into briquettes and eco-friendly mosquito coils, Sam found the product he was looking for: soil conditioner. And Safi Organics was born.

Safi Sarvi is a soil conditioner that has proven to increase yields by 30%, while also increasing nutrient holding, saving water through better soil retention, and removing up to 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per acre of land during growing season. The biochar, which is produced from rice husks, also restores crop soils that have been degraded and acidified by decades of chemical fertilizer use. 

From waste to soil conditioner

To develop the fertilizer, the Safi team first collects agricultural waste from farmers. Then, the biochar is created using a pyrolysis process, which heats the waste in a low-oxygen environment. Next, Safi mixes its own proprietary enhancement formula to ensure balanced nutrients and create a complete, carbon-negative soil amendment.

Rigu’s clean tech start-up was supported by the Kenya Climate Innovation Center. When the company first started, its production capacity was five tons per month; it reached 25 tons per month by the end of 2016. In addition, Safi’s customer base has grown to over 1000 direct buyers.

Safi Organics has received recognition from a number of start-up competitions, entrepreneur programs, and other organizations, including the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, University of California’s Global Food Initiative, the Tony Elemelu Foundation, and the Total Challenge - Kenya. 

Nutritious soil – for 38 million farmers?

Through it all, Rigu has remained focused on serving his community and regularly reinvests competition prize money to increase production capacity and marketing efforts.

His vision for Safi Organics is to remain a people-centered company, and he hopes to reach over 38 million farmers across Africa.

“At Safi Organics, everyone is important. We welcome everyone to share their ideas, and together, we will work toward actualizing those ideas,” he told the Daily Nation. “Every day is a work in progress.”

Safi Organics is one of many companies which are supported by infoDev's Climate Technology Program, an initiative sponsored by the U.K.’s Department for International Development, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australian Aid), Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA), Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.