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Biochar for a greener, ‘bush-free’ Namibia

In a groundbreaking initiative, PyroNam Namibia is turning the tide against bush encroachment while simultaneously improving soil quality by converting bush biomass into biochar.

This innovative approach benefits Namibian farmers and contributes “green money” through the sale of carbon credits to international companies committed to environmental responsibility.

PyroNam Namibia unveiled its first biochar plant during two inclusive open days on 16 and 17 September 2023 at Waltershagen Farm, near Otjiwarongo to engage more farmers in the biochar industry. Farmers, interested members of the community, and businesses who read a previous article about PyroNam in AgriForum and other newspapers, attended the open day. The trained team answered all questions about the plant and its operations. There was a great deal of interest and lively discussions around the refreshments and snacks provided.

The following issues were presented:
Why do we make biochar?

PyroNam produces biochar to remove carbon dioxide (CO2), the most potent greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. This reduces climate change.

By converting woody waste biomass into biochar, the carbon, originally synthesized into the wood through the plant’s photosynthesis by consuming CO2, becomes stabilized. Provided the biochar is not burned for cooking purposes or by veld fires, the carbon remains stabilized for up to a thousand years.

Therefore, biochar is currently considered the fastest-to-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technology. Carbon dioxide emitters, obligated to reduce emissions or compensate for the removal of emissions resulting from fossil fuel consumption, can purchase carbon credits. These credits allow them to gain the rights to produce emissions. PyroNam utilizes this mechanism to fund the removal of up to 2 000 tons of CO2 per biochar plant and year, via carbon certificate sales.

What is in it for farmers?

Farmers who harvest encroaching bush can sell their bushwood to PyroNam at a plant located approximately 5 km away from the harvesting operation. This allows farmers to generate additional income from their land. Any biochar plant can, in this way, support cost recovery for farmers’ debushing operations, often even returning a profit. It is estimated that one of PyroNam’s semi-industrial plants can absorb 5 000 tons of fresh biomass or 3 500 tons of dry biomass per year. Ultimately it will process all encroacher bush cleared from an area of 5 000 hectares or more over a ten-year period.

This alternative biomass market may safeguard farmers against the volatility of the BBQ charcoal market without requiring additional investments, specialization, or marketing efforts.

What can be done with biochar?

Biochar is super-adsorbent, like a sponge. It is also inert, meaning it cannot decompose like uncharred biomass unless burnt in a fire. One kilogram of biochar can absorb up to 2.7 kg of water. Additionally, the capillary cavities in biochar provide an ideal shelter and environment for soil-borne microbes, supporting the hair roots of plants to mobilize and absorb soil nutrients.

When biochar is charged (similar to a battery) with soil nutrients such as compost, animal manures, or even urine and added to the soil, it has the potential to transform the soil into “Terra Preta” (Portuguese for black soil). Terra Preta soils are among the oldest and most productive soils created by humans. Discovered in the Amazon, they have been enhancing soil fertility for approximately 1.5 millennia with no additional human intervention.

In Namibia, some early innovators in horticulture and dry-land cropping have already incorporated biochar as a permanent soil conditioner, reducing their fertilizer requirements and increasing resilience to drought.

The application of biochar to soil has the potential to increase crop-yields on dryland farming by as much as 100%. Research from northern Ghana indicates that crop-yields in arid landscapes may even increase by 400%!

What can be done with biochar?

The chemo-physical properties of biochar, particularly its adsorption capacity, also make it suitable for rehabilitating polluted soils such as those in the mining or chemical industries. Additionally, biochar finds application in the construction sector as an additive for concrete or mortar mixes. Here it contributes to lighter constructions, reduced dependence on steel, increased durability and improved insulation.

Furthermore, the condensed tars and smoke produced during the biochar production process yield additional by-products with market value. This includes wood vinegar which is applied as a pest repellent and growth stimulant in regenerative agriculture.

What’s in it for the environment?

Biomass harvesting from bush encroachment is certified under the Forestry Stewardship Council’s standards. Pasture and savannah restoration is a prerequisite for implementing restorative grazing management. Regenerative grazing management evidently leads to the re-establishment of biodiversity, including large herbivores (i.e., game), an increase in perennial grasses and grazing productivity, and improved ground-water availability.

The semi-industrial biochar production plants generate minimal waste. In contrast to the charcoal industry, PyroNam collects and re-uses smoke and wood gas to produce valuable by-products like energy, tar, and wood vinegar. Therefore, biochar production predominantly emits CO2 with insignificant amounts of climate-damaging methane, which is massively emitted in conventional charcoal production.

What are the spill-over effects for the national economy?

Labor Market: Each PyroNam biochar plant will create 22 new formalized jobs with decent labor standards as required in Charcoal Sector (FSD) audits. Sales of carbon credits require PyroNam to undergo audits for the European Biochar Initiative’s Carbon C Sink Standards, the obligation to maintain safety and security standards surpassing industry norms.

Agriculture and Manufacturing: As a supplementary business case leveraging Namibia’s abundance of waste biomass, biochar production will enhance and diversify the Namibian business environment. This includes the sourcing of an ever-growing portion of its equipment from the local market. Importantly, as PyroNam does not export biochar, each ton of sequestered CO2 will significantly contribute to Namibia’s agricultural asset value, bolstering food security and sovereignty.

Climate Change: Local biochar production and utilization will also reduce Namibia’s climate footprint and assist in fulfilling its obligations under the Paris Agreement: To reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, this can be achieved without necessitating additional public investments or regulation.

Who is PyroNam?

PyroNam is a subsidiary of the German startup PyroCCS based in Cologne, founded by Timo Herbrand and Carlos Arrufat in 2021. Initiated through PyroNam, PyroCCS is dedicated to supporting carbon dioxide removal through biochar production in developing countries. Currently, PyroCCS is active in India and exploring expansion opportunities in other countries across Eastern and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

PyroCCS aims to establish 1 000 plants in these regions within the next 5 years, creating up to 22 000 new jobs and sequestering approximately 2 000 000 tons of atmospheric CO2. Presently, PyroNam employs 25 plant operators at its pilot plant on Farm Waltershagen, managed by a diverse team comprising seconded and local staff.

PyroNam envisions to scale its production by the addition of 5 plants in 2024, aspring to operate as many as 500 plants within the next decade.