Agriculture is not only one of the biggest contributors to climate change, it is also a key part of the solution. Farmers around the world are diving into climate-smart farming – exploring high-tech approaches that allow them to cash in on the opportunities that freshly-launched carbon markets and ecosystem service payments present. But, it may be a simple technology believed to have originated more than 2000 years ago in the Amazon that presents one of the most useful climate solutions of the modern era. 

Biochar is a form of charcoal that is produced from a process of super-heating biomass from crops, and research shows it has the ability to improve soil quality, reduce water runoff, sequester carbon for thousands of years, and halt emissions of potent greenhouse gases from soils, such as nitrous oxide and methane. Despite all these benefits, the potential of this simple technology has not yet been unleashed. Often stigmatized as a low-tech solution for poor farmers, much of the research on biochar has been locked up in the halls of academia or has been limited to the preview of development or agricultural extension agencies. This is all changing as a new flock of entrepreneurs and investors – including big names like Microsoft, Shopify, and Stripe – are betting big on its application for carbon removal. 

What if every farm around the world – including the majority of farms which are are smallholder operations – could tap into the power of biochar? And, what if empowering women is the exact way to make sure this happens? Meet Húmica.

The Biochar Revival 💨

The biochar industry has an estimated carbon sequestration potential of up to two gigatons (Gt) of carbon annually, which is double the annual CO2 emissions of Germany (see source). But, all biochar isn’t the same. To be most effective, it needs to be tailored to the specific needs and types of soils it is being used on.  

Húmica has created an integrated, systemic approach to unlock the carbon sequestration potential of biochar on small farms around the world, starting in their home country of Mexico. As the first step, Húmica applies soil assessment tools to understand the current physical, biological, and chemical properties of a farm’s soils. Diagnosing soil health is an important step before recommending any type of regenerative agriculture practice. In partnership with the National University of Mexico, Húmica brings affordable soil health testing to isolated rural areas in Mexico, while also considering the concerns of productivity and profitability of their crops.

The only way a farmer can know what nutrients may be deficient  in the soil is by testing. Not testing means just guessing at the condition of the soil, which could lead to not treating the soil with needed nutrients it may need”, says Ramón Bacre.

After the diagnosis, Húmica then works closely with farmers to establish a personalised plan to sequester carbon and restore the soil health on the farm. They recommend affordable and easy-to-implement regenerative practices, including tailor-made biochar recipes. These recipes fine tune the properties of biochar to further enhance its effectiveness in specific soil types and applications by adjusting things like temperature, composting systems, and feedstocks used in its production.

Húmica is currently building an AI-powered recommendation engine to provide farmers with turnkey biochar-based recipes that are fit for purpose for all kinds of soil types, environments, and crops. This platform will not only provide farmers across Mexico, and eventually the world, with the information they need on what is the best biochar to use on their farms, but it will also collect data and information on the impacts that the tailored biochar recipes have on aspects such as improving crop yields and enhancing the flavours and nutritional profiles of the crops grown. The goal of Húmica’s recommendation engine is not only to support farmers to become more profitable by adopting regenerative agricultural practices, but also to help accelerate much needed research and innovation around biochar technology as a food and climate solution.

Credit Photo: by Martha Salazar Ulloa, Cooperativa “Embajadoras del cacao”

Women are the Secret Weapon 👩‍🌾

At the community level, women are more likely than men to engage in the management of natural resources for agriculture, including soil and water conservation, afforestation, and crop domestication, according to CERES. That’s why Húmica has put collaboration with women at the forefront of their business strategy – because, as CEO and Founder Ramón Bacre, has figured out, “they are the most willing to change and more open to share their knowledge.”

Working with women is Húmica’s secret weapon, and the key to their future success. Women have too often been viewed by business only as “farmers’ wives.” The fact is, women are often the backbone of farming operations, yet they are seldom at the forefront of farming decisions. They have less access to land, loans, and machinery than male farmers, and they also carry the famous “double-burden” of unpaid work. Húmica challenges the masculine identity of the word “farmer” and recognises how women are typically heavily involved in the food production process by working in the fields and selling the fruit and vegetables harvested. 

At this moment, Húmica provides independent technical assistance to approximately 40 women farmers in the regions of Tabasco, Ayotoxco, Cuetzalan, Oaxaca in Mexico. They help these women transition towards biochar-enabled regenerative agriculture by selling the sustainable food products that the women farmers make. In markets across Mexico City, Húmica sells delicious and nutritious premium products such as honey and lemongrass tea grown by their network of women farmers. Humica has unlocked these markets for women farmers and uses the profits to pay for the biochar they use. 

“Being able to access a high-value market for their products is relevant in the transition to regenerative agriculture. Farmers need to have certainty that decreases their financial risks”, says Ramón Bacre.

A Rollercoaster Journey to Success 🎢

This Mexican startup has a story of adversity and transformation that has led them from failure into success and opportunity. A couple of years ago, Founder Ramón Bacre went broke after his first entrepreneurial adventure didn’t work due to challenging food supply logistics in Mexico and the robbery of his lab and production equipment. He decided to take a more secure paid position at National University of Mexico to pay off his debts. Yet, Ramón couldn’t get rid of the itch to improve agriculture and follow his dreams. It didn’t take long for him to gather back his previous team members, Veronica and Alejandra, who deeply believed in the vision and potential of biochar through empowering women. Together they launched Húmica in 2020.

Despite all they have been through, this team has come back even stronger! Humica has found a new momentum in these unique times. They have aligned affordable and personalised biochar with tailor-made regenerative agriculture systems that can restore soil health, sequester carbon, and solve climate change – all by collaborating with women.

What’s Next?

TFF is now working with Húmica to help them develop their business model, reach more farmers and build their recommendation engine platform. In addition, TFF is helping the team with aspects like storytelling and impact strategy, as they shape the future of this industry. 

To see Húmica pitching live, register for the TFF Summit on the 2nd of October here.

If you want to find out more about Húmica, partner with them, or meet the team, please reach out to marie@thoughtforfood.org.

Hear them pitch at the TFF Summit!

LIVE on October 2nd