A New Soil Health Tool — The First of its Kind in Africa
Earthworm Foundation is partnering with NetZero, a biochar production startup, to restore soil health and fight climate change in Cameroon.
The partnership provides training and support to local farmers — growing mainly coffee, cocoa and food — to use biochar in their plantations. It will officially be launched in the first quarter of this year at a ceremony presided over by Cameroon's Minister of Environment.
NetZero operates in the Littoral region of Cameroon, in Nkongsamba, a historic town 125 kilometres north of economic capital Douala. Nkongsamba and its surroundings are best known for the country's largest coffee farms. NetZero is the first African company to operate an industrial unit producing biochar, a soil amendment — materials added to improve soil — made by extracting carbon from agricultural waste.
What is biochar?
Biochar is a solid product with high carbon content used to increase agricultural yields. It is a soil amendment that improves agricultural productivity in an environmentally friendly way and for a very long time, thanks to its ability to retain water and nutrients in the soil, as well as balance pH. Its also reduces the use of synthetic fertilisers.
It is obtained by pyrolysis of agricultural waste, i.e. by heating biomass — plant-based material used as fuel — at high temperature without oxygen.
Using biochar means storing carbon, captured from the air by plants during photosynthesis, in the soil in an inert solid form. Beyond the agricultural aspect, it is a means of fighting climate change by reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
How does NetZero work?
The production unit is mainly supplied with husks and parchment from the coffee hulling process. The company recycles coffee waste and heats it to a very high temperature without oxygen, which produces biochar. This biochar is then used as a soil improver. Electricity can also be generated as a by-product during the production process.
NetZero's goal is to replicate the model deployed in Nkongsamba on a large scale; so that by 2030, it can remove more than one million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. At COP26, the company announced it will construct fifty sites in Cameroon by 2030.
A quick look back at activities with NetZero
In 2021, NetZero asked Earthworm Foundation to help spread the use of biochar. After a field visit and discussions with NetZero, an initial action plan was proposed based on five pillars:
- Simplified and rapid diagnostic support;
- Training and coaching farmers;
- Implementing a traceability system;
- Monitoring and evaluation; and
- Stakeholder engagement and collaboration, and institutional support.
Through workshops and training, Earthworm's Cameroon team reached out to about 150 people — including agricultural unit managers, millers, local producers and farmers — to spread word of the project and NetZero's mission in Cameroon, as well as the benefits for local communities. The team has also conducted several engagements with stakeholders, including central and decentralised administrations, multinational companies, and research institutions, most of which is ongoing.