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February 14th, 2018 / Smithsonian Magazine, US

A new generation of start ups are working to help farmers in a region that faces myriad challenges

On a shopping trip to the rice-trading hub of Mwea, Rigu had an insight. In front of each rice processor’s storefront there were heaps of chaff, the almost weightless husk that is separated from the grains during the harvest. Many of the heaps had been set on fire—a process that releases toxic pollutants—just to dispose of the stuff. But where most people saw waste, Rigu saw an opportunity.

“I thought that what I was seeing many farmers doing was not right,” he says, “so I researched on how best the waste could be recycled to make it into something both economically and environmentally viable.”

Today Rigu has quit his maize farm and runs a flourishing business, Safi Organics, which turns chaff into an organic conditioner called Safi Sarvi. Rigu buys rice husks, maize combs and other agricultural waste from a local network of rice processors for almost nothing, around $30 per metric ton. Then he slow burns it and adds a mixture of minced limestone and other vegetal ingredients to create a sort of charcoal, which can be used as fertilizer. He sells the fertilizer back to local farmers for $15 per 50-kg (110-pound) bag, netting Rigu up to $200 for each processed ton.

Farmers who use it have seen their farm yields increase up to 30 percent, and their income by up to 50 percent. Read more