WongPhai and Planboo bring Biochar to Thailand

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Wongphai Planboo Biochar in Thailand feature

Wrapping up the hottest month ever on historical record, my colleague, Benjamin Bennet, and I flew off to Thailand to deliver a five-day biochar training that commenced on July 31, 2023. A series of meetings and conversations between Khomchalat Thongting of WongPhai and myself from Planboo had established the foundations of our win-win partnership. But only with our arrival in Prachinburi, Thailand, did our carefully laid plans fully come to life.  

NOTE: This article first appeared in August 2023, most recently updated in January 2024.

Project Origins

The story behind Planboo’s latest biochar project actually begins about three years earlier, in the midst of the COVID pandemic. It was 2020, and software consultant Khomchalat “Kom”  Thongting had just formed WongPhai, an environmental impact organization that promotes bamboo for all its uses and benefits. Rajamangala University of Technology in Thanyaburi then reached out to Kom to invite WongPhai to participate in a collaborative program designed to bridge public and private entities and enhance local economies in rural Thailand. 

Kom accepted this offer and came to a small village in Prachinburi, about two hours east of Bangkok. Supported by public funding from the university, he and his organization began advising the local villagers – including a well-established shopkeeper and matriarch named Wanphen – to harvest, treat and utilize their abundant bamboo resources more productively. While the local knowledge and understanding of bamboo was already comprehensive, WongPhai provided valuable guidance on things like cost control and waste management.

Bamboo waste management

As Kom and Wanphen became increasingly aware of the waste problem connected to bamboo production and commercialization, they turned to charcoal production as a pragmatic solution. The province of Prachinburi, as we learned during our visit, is dotted with cottage industry processing sites where bamboo poles are selectively harvested, cut to size and sorted. This process results in tremendous quantities of small offcuts, too small to be useful. 

A typical family-run operation generates about 800 kg to 1 metric ton of such waste per day. And as it piles up, the convenient, commonplace solution has always been to incinerate the waste in an open fire. Although the solution is simple, the environmental effects are detrimental. With hundreds of these facilities operating across the countryside, they emit an enormous volume of smoke, including CO2 and other harmful greenhouse gases.

Bamboo waste offcuts for biochar
Bamboo processing and selection produces tremendous quantities of waste that would otherwise be burned in an open fire.

Kom and his wife, Saranrat “Nui” Tanthiptham, immediately recognized the problem that this practice of open burning was creating for the local air quality and the environment in general.  There were also determined to close the loop and turn bamboo production into a zero-waste industry. 

Biochar: In which nothing goes to waste

Making use of the offcuts for charcoal production felt like the most sensible solution. Charcoal is a valued commodity in Thailand and throughout the global south for cooking and heating. The process of pyrolysis converts biomass like timber and bamboo into char while releasing minimal amounts of smoke and CO2. Bamboo, furthermore, is a far more sustainable and renewable feedstock than traditional timber. But when charcoal is used, in a stove or a barbecue, those greenhouse gases rise directly into the atmosphere. 

And then Kom and his colleagues discovered biochar. To the casual onlooker, charcoal and biochar are basically the same thing. They are produced through a very similar method of pyrolysis – cooking in an oxygen-deprived environment – although biochar requires a slightly higher temperature. In either case, the output is something black and crunchy, although, as I learned, biochar doesn’t stain your hands with oily residue the way charcoal does. 

The most important distinction between biochar and charcoal, however, is in its application. Charcoal gets burned and turned to smoke and ash. But biochar goes into the ground where it boosts the carbon content, restores the soil quality, and creates air-pockets, which increases water-holding capacity and creates an inviting habitat for beneficial microbes. 

Moreover, when you turn biomass into biochar and bury it in the soil, you are creating a carbon sink. Carbon that would have been released as carbon dioxide through decomposition or incineration is stabilized in a solid state and stored in the ground, where it will remain for hundreds of years. And in exchange for performing this service for the environment, the project developer can be rewarded with valuable Carbon Dioxide Removal Credits (CDRCs). 

The power of positive sinking

And this is where Planboo enters the picture. Planboo has been working closely with Carbon Standards International (CSI) and the European Biochar Certificate (EBC) since 2021 to develop and codify the requirements and methodologies for generating reputable, trustworthy CDRCs that can be verified and sold on the voluntary carbon market. 

Earlier in 2023, Kom connected with Planboo, and we began to guide him in designing a biochar project that would satisfy the standards to earn carbon credits. Through months of collaboration, problem solving and careful project design, the biochar operation came to life.

Planboo representatives Fred Hornaday and Benjamin Bennet alongside WongPhai founders, Saranrat “Nui” Tanthiptham and Khomchalat Thongting.

Kom, with his passion for bamboo and rural community development, and his experience as an IT entrepreneur, together with Nui, his number-crunching wife and business partner, along with the team of rural farmers and bamboo processors, coalesced as a unified team and a force of nature. Kom and new manage the administrative aspects, while Wanphen, Anon and their indefatigable crew carry out the day-to-day operations of gathering bamboo and producing biochar. 

All hands on deck in Prachinburi

From the moment Ben and I arrived at Wanphen’s homestead in Prachinburi, we were thoroughly impressed by both their generous hospitality and their effective organization. At other trainings, the kiln operators had required a complete lesson in biochar production and application. But it was clear that the team here in Thailand already knew exactly what they were doing, and things were running like a well-oiled machine. 

The first requirement for a successful and certifiable carbon removal project is a reliable source of sustainable biomass. To confirm this availability, we jumped into a pickup truck and drove about five minutes to something like a large dirt parking lot with stacks and bundles of bamboo poles. Situated on the edge of an almost impenetrable forest of bamboo, a small team of craftspeople, mostly members of a single family, were gathering bamboo poles, systematically cutting them, and sorting them by size. 

Bamboo craftswoman processes and selects poles
Throughout the province, men and women everywhere are harvesting bamboo and cutting it down to size.

They worked quietly, but with astonishing efficiency. And we soon realized that these bamboo marketplaces were everywhere, each producing up to a ton of waste offcuts per day. We visited about ten of these sites, all within a leisurely 10-minute drive from the kiln site at Wanphen’s property. No doubt, the biomass was readily available to produce well over a ton of biochar every day, without having to travel long distances or perform a cumbersome harvest. In fact, by removing the bamboo scraps from their property, the biochar project actually provides the bamboo processors with a valuable service. 

The next step in the process was to fire the kilns and turn the bamboo offcuts into carbon-rich biochar. We’d already seen that the crew was more than capable of this task, but upon closer inspection, Ben was able to offer some expert advice which enabled them to increase their efficiency and get even more biochar from each batch. More importantly, the team on the ground was very open and eager to learn and experiment with new techniques. They clearly took great pride in their work and derived real satisfaction from the small improvements we were making together. 

Step three in an effective biochar operation is to mix the black gold with some kind of compost or manure. By itself, pure biochar is super high in carbon and its porosity is very inviting to microbial life. But those beneficial microbes aren’t really present until the biochar has been charged with some nutrients. Also, pure biochar can theoretically be collected and used as charcoal, which would interfere with the creation of a carbon sink and lead to harmful emissions. Once the char is mixed with compost, it’s no longer possible or reasonable to burn it in a stove. 

Prior to our arrival, the WongPhai crew had been mixing their biochar with a rich blend of compost. The final result was an excellent product, but we were concerned about the scalability of this strategy. If they were going to produce a ton or more of biochar per day, they would have to spend a lot of time and money to gather this compost and mix everything together. 

They had also been brewing barrels of liquid compost tea, consisting of a special blend of manure and photosensitive enzymes. After lengthy deliberation, we agreed that soaking the biochar in a solution of compost tea would be far more cost-effective, and so a temporary submersion tank was swiftly erected using fresh bamboo poles and a large roll of nylon tarp.

Biochar closeup
Biochar, an amazing substance for waste management, soil regeneration and carbon removal.

Finally, the last stage in the cycle is to apply the biochar to the soil. It’s not enough to produce mountains and mountains of biochar. In order to generate valuable carbon credits, you have to create a bona fide carbon sink, which means putting the biochar into the ground. Preferably, the biochar should be added to an agricultural crop where it can make the greatest impact. 

For the financial success of a project, it’s important to find a farmer or buyer who will pay for the biochar, thereby reducing his expenditures on chemical fertilisers. But because biochar is a relatively new concept to farmers in the global south, we can’t always find a buyer right away. In that case, it’s essential to get the carbon credit revenue as soon as possible. After all, that’s the whole reason for the carbon finance mechanism in the first place, to make climate-positive projects like this more financially feasible than they otherwise would be.

In Thailand, the most prevalent crop, by far, is rice. So WongPhai has already begun applying biochar to a few local, small-scale rice paddies. Once the value of biochar is demonstrated and recognized on this crop, there’s no limit to the volumes of biochar that could be sold to this industry. Another obvious option was to apply biochar to the bamboo groves, completing the circle and returning it to the original source.

Biochar application on bamboo in Thailand
Application of biochar onto the bamboo grove has already resulted in more prolific shoot production.

I wondered how much difference a bit of biochar would make on the bamboo, which already appeared to be flourishing here under the ideal conditions of the tropical forest. But then they pointed out several bamboo clumps that had received biochar supplements in the last few months, and they were already producing more new shoots than they ever had in previous years. Clearly, the biochar has been making a noticeable impact.

To further develop the market for biochar in Thailand, WongPhai has been pursuing partnerships with universities and government institutions to perform important research. Meanwhile, they are also reaching out to a number of fertilser companies and agricultural associations. Every time a farmer is able to substitute biochar for some amount of chemical feriliser, they are reducing the carbon footprint of their operation contributing to the long-term health of their soil. There is even evidence to indicate that biochar application can reduce the methane emissions associated with conventional rice farming.

Beyond Carbon Removal

As we completed our five-day training for the WongPhai biochar project in Thailand, we came away feeling entirely satisfied that they were meeting or exceeding all the standards for certifiable carbon removal. From the collection of waste biomass to the field application of biochar on rice paddies and bamboo groves, they were doing everything right, and Planboo was providing the digital tools to document all of these processes.

Even beyond the verifiable carbon sequestration and the agricultural benefits offered by biochar production and application, what brought us the greatest satisfaction on this trip were the human connections and the level of involvement we witnessed across all the members of the community. The consistent gathering of bamboo waste and the operation of Kontiki kilns is obviously something more than just a daily grind for them. From the founding executives to the shoveling labourers, there’s a clear sense of awareness that they are engaged in something meaningful.

As if out of nowhere, we descended on their remote village under a lush canopy of bamboo and tropical fruit trees. We came to inspect their operation, assess their labour practices, and offer training on the use of our digital MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Verifying) tools, so they could produce a new revenue stream from a mysterious commodity known as carbon credits. 

And they welcomed us like royalty. Whether we huddled around the picnic tables and feasted on bamboo shoot curry, or gathered around the roaring flame of the kiln to examine their biomass moisture and their pyrolysis techniques, we were always greeted and accepted with openness and sincerity. 

Our participation in the project and our ability to link them to the international carbon credit system were clearly very important, but the collaboration went much deeper than that. With every small step we took to refine their processes, we worked together, and we shared the sense of success. Every improvement was a victory in which the whole team felt pride and satisfaction. And we all felt like members of a single team, coming together on a level playing field.

This sense of equality was also evident in the representation of women throughout the project. At every level of the organization — executive, managerial, and kiln operation — women play a key role. Nui, a co-founder of WongPhai, manages the books, while Wanphen owns the land where the project is based and actively oversees the daily operations. At the same time, she runs a small convenient store at the front of the property. Wanphen’s daughter, Naht, is also a member of the crew, and she was especially vocal about the importance of the project for the community, and how it allows her to stay here in the countryside with her mother instead of moving to Bangkok to look for work.

By the time we left, it was with a small trace of sadness. They had fully embraced us a part of their family, despite the obvious language barrier and the wide cultural chasm. But together we had participated in something universal, transcending these mundane boundaries, eating, drinking, working and perspiring in a tight-knit community, driven by a shared purpose. 

Sometimes it feels incredibly difficult to explain what we do and how we generate carbon removal credits by turning agricultural waste into biochar, and why. But then there are times when words are unnecessary, and we simply know, from looking at the smiling faces around the barbecue, that we are doing the right thing.

Additional reading

To learn more about how Planboo operates and enable biochar projects throughout the tropics, take a look at some of these related articles and videos.

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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.