Planboo and Elpitiya: Success in Sri Lanka

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Elpitiya biochar success in Sri Lanka

The brainchild of three nature lovers on a mission to save the planet, Planboo formed in 2021 with the stated goal of removing as much atmospheric carbon as possible, primarily by cultivating as much bamboo as possible. By 2022, the team had moved from Sweden to Sri Lanka, and their strategy had shifted slightly, but the vision remained unchanged. In the sunny tropics of South Asia, Planboo turned its focus to transforming agricultural waste into biochar, a process that fixes high concentrations of carbon and results in a product that’s extremely beneficial for the soil.

Tropical biochar: A recipe for success

Teeming with idyllic beauty and economic instability, Sri Lanka is something of a land of contradictions. But as it happens, this small island nation provides a perfect setting for biochar production and carbon credit generation. Combining their technological savvy and environmental passion, the Planboo team arrived here fortuitously and was quick to develop a recipe for success. 

The primary ingredient for making biochar is a copious quantity of agricultural waste. Covered with tea, rubber and cinnamon plantations, Sri Lanka has no shortage of residual biomass. Traditionally, these vegetative remnants and offcuts would be sold for firewood or simply thrown into a heap and burned. And while this might be the quickest and easiest solution, it produces terrible amounts of smoke and air pollution, sending all the carbon back into the atmosphere. 

So Planboo has been pushing an alternative formula that requires minimal investment and brings numerous benefits to the island, its people, and the planet. Using a simple, low-tech Kontiki kiln, the waste biomass undergoes pyrolysis and turns into biochar. Rather than spewing pollution and CO2 into the sky, this process embeds the carbon into a solid substance.

Moreover, this biochar — especially after being mixed with compost — can be plowed into the ground and used as a powerful soil amendment. At this point, the carbon, formerly CO2, will remain underground for up to 1,000 years. In the earth, this charcoal-like additive helps with moisture retention and attracts a whole host of microorganisms that can fortify the topsoil and nourish the plants. 

The benefits, for both the farmer and the planet, are too numerous and impactful to ignore. So when Planboo approached Elpitiya Plantations in 2022 and recommended this approach to waste management and soil rehabilitation, the Sri Lankan company leaped at the opportunity. Elpitiya’s cinnamon factory at Devitura Estate generates tons of waste every day, providing the perfect feedstock for Planboo’s biochar pilot project.

“We are doing what needs to be done for the environment, for the country, and for the people,” says Izzadeen Ishafir, Sustainability Officer at Elpitiya.

Nutrient-rich biochar ready for application at the Devitura Estatein Sri Lanka.

Converting biomass into carbon and carbon into credit 

As if waste removal and land restoration weren’t interesting enough, the real innovations behind Planboo’s service are the technological tools and methodologies they’ve developed to measure the actual quantities of CO2 sequestered through the production and application of biochar. Because the levels of carbon removal are so significant, the company is able to track this activity. 

Upon completion of the carbon sequestration, once the biochar is safely in the ground, we are able to monetize the earth-friendly gesture with valuable Carbon Dioxide Removal Credits (CDRCs). Working with international organizations like the Ithaka Institute and the European Biochar Certificate (EBC), Planboo has helped to establish a global standard for measuring carbon removal with biochar in the tropics.

Essentially, each ton of biochar can earn the producer two carbon removal credits. A carbon credit represents one ton of removed CO2 (or COequivalent), and a ton of solid carbon is actually equivalent to about 3.6 tons of gaseous CO2. Then we also have to take into account the CO2 generated in the gathering and processing of biomass that has to be taken into account.

And when it’s all said and done, the producer, in this case, Elpitiya, earns $120 for each carbon credit. They can also apply the biochar to their own fields to enhance the long-term health of their plantation. Or, if they prefer, they can sell the biochar to other farmers, earning something like an additional $200 per ton.

Biochar production with Elpitiya
Planboo works with carbon farmers here in Sri Lanka, and throughout the tropics, to improve lives and livelihoods.

Remedy for a nation in crisis

At the same time that Planboo was rolling out its program to turn biomass into biochar, regenerate degraded soil, and create valuable carbon removal credits, Sri Lanka’s whole economy was spiraling into turmoil. 

The country’s inflation rate in 2022 was roughly 48% (compared to the previous year), and it earned the unenviable distinction of having the worst-performing currency in the world. In response to widespread protests, President Gotabaya finally fled the country and flew to Singapore in July. Following the political turnaround, the currency gradually stabilized, but the situation underscored some of the immediate challenges faced by small, volatile nations in a global economy.

And this brings us to one of the chief benefits of carbon removal credits in the developing world. Unlike other locally-produced commodities, subject to the vicissitudes of the local currency, carbon credits are traded in US dollars. A Sri Lankan-owned company like Elpitiya, therefore, when removing carbon, has access to hard, stable dollars, even when their tangible goods may only be generating revenue in a less reliable currency.

Another Sri Lankan phenomenon that received scant coverage in the global media was a sudden, all-out ban on commercial, chemical fertilisers. Those of us in the organic farming camp greeted this new edict as something of a blessing. Yet, it came without warning, so farmers were completely unprepared for it. 

More importantly, the plants and crops were unprepared. Having been fed a steady stream of synthetic N-P-K for the last several decades, the plantations of Sri Lanka — like much of the world  — had developed a serious dependency. And now they were being told to kick the habit, cold turkey. As a result, many farmers experienced yield reductions of as much as 50 percent. 

Fertilisers can be a valuable tool in the hands of a gardener or a commercial farmer. But over-dependence on these additives often comes at the expense of the soil. The nutrients go straight to the roots of the crops, but the soil ecosystem, or the rhizosphere, gradually diminishes and turns into something like a desert. And this is exactly the scenario where biochar proves so beneficial. 

“We can use our own resources on-site… to make a long-term investment,” says Devitura Estate Manager, Ruwan Gunaratne. “Because we are putting biochar back in the soil and improving it, the benefits will last.”

Biochar bags in Sri Lanka
Sacks of high-quality biochar produced by Elpitiya Plantations.

A win-win for farmers, landowners, humus, and humans

Biochar is nothing new. Terra Preta, an ancient agricultural practice, traces its deep roots back to the pre-Columbian farmers of the Amazon. The phrase comes from Portuguese and means “black earth”, referring to the rich, dark humus found in the soil of the Amazon Basin. Tropical soils produce lush jungles, but they are notoriously low in nutrients, which makes productive farming particularly difficult. Archaic Amazonian agrarians recognized this problem, but living in close harmony with nature, they also learned to overcome the challenge by plowing charcoal, bones, and manure into the ground. 

With the industrial revolution and the dawn of petrochemicals, this age-old wisdom was almost lost. But at Planboo, we’re eager to preserve this prehistoric knowledge, while also embracing the technology of modernity. Given the global challenge that lies before us, we need to use every tool at our disposal. And our methods do exactly that. First, we turn waste into time-honored, fertility-enhancing biochar. Then we use state-of-the-art hardware and smartphone apps to measure, report, and verify this carbon removal so that our climate-helping farmers can reap US dollars. 

If you’re curious to learn more about generating carbon credits while regenerating topsoil, or you want to become a carbon farmer yourself, please reach out to us at Grow@Planboo.eco. We would love to speak with you.

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Fred

Fred Hornaday, founder of Bambu Batu, is a leading voice in the bamboo industry. He's been working in the industry since 2006 with a network that spans all six continents.

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Carbon Removal

To keep the world within 1.5 degrees of global warming and to avoid global catastrophe – we now need to not only drastically reduce our emissions but also rapidly remove them too.

However, there is very little carbon removal today with less than 50,000 tonnes of CO2 removed in 2021. It’s estimated we need to remove 10% of Global GHG emissions by 2030, which is equal to 5 billion tonnes per year. Carbon removal needs to grow 100,000 times bigger. 

Planboo is a nature-based carbon removal company, using bamboo-the fastest growing plant in the world. Like all plants, through photosynthesis bamboo absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Because it grows so fast, it’s carbon removal potential is huge. We develop projects in Sri Lanka with local partners and supply high quality and high integrity carbon removal credits for the carbon market.