November 10, 2015
By Devin Thorpe, Originally posted on Forbes.com
To tell the story of the social venture Carbon Roots, we have to go back to the Haiti earthquake.
Lyle Sorensen is an orthopedic surgeon who came to Haiti to volunteer for a month immediately following the January 12, 2010 earthquake.
While here, he was a presented with a rare case of tuberculosis of the spine, something he could not treat in Haiti. He reached out to colleagues and friends in the U.S. for help and Julia Helstrom Coupet, whose husband Mendel Coupet is Haitian, made arrangements to treat the boy, Netus Madiode, in Philadelphia. He had two major surgeries and was essentially cured. Once a paraplegic, the boy was able to play soccer again. While the boy was being treated, Lyle visited Philadelphia from Seattle and his son, Eric Sorensen, who was living in New York joined them.
The younger Sorensen had been doing some research on “biochar” a sort of soil amendment made from charcoal made from agricultural waste. Coupet was very excited about the implications of using biochar in Haiti and invited Eric to come down and visit his family in a remote village in the central part of Haiti.
Sorensen and his partners Hannah Erickson, who last year also became his wife, and Ryan Delaney, went to Haiti later that year for their first visit. They were successful in producing some biochar and even in showing the locals that the biochar increased crop yields. They set up a nonprofit entity to help fund their work and continued working with regular visits to get Haitians to use the charcoal as a soil amendment.
Following the earthquake, a cholera epidemic broke out. Approximately 700,000 people got cholera and 9,000 people died. Sorensen got sick while visiting a remote village in central Haiti. After five days of severe diarrhea, he and Delaney hiked out, got back in their car and drove to Port-au-Prince to a hospital where he was diagnosed with cholera and treated.
Delaney, reflecting on nearly six years of work in Haiti, told me yesterday that the biggest lesson he’s learned is to “learn to think like a Haitian.” He’s referring to the insights that the founders were slow to accept.
The locals kept asking if they couldn’t burn the charcoal made from the agricultural waste instead of using it as a fertilizer. For many months, the trio persisted in their efforts to get Haitians excited about this plentiful fertilizer that would also be carbon negative.
Ultimately, they saw the light. They began to appreciate that the vast majority of Haitians cooked with charcoal, meaning that this is a huge business. So, with a pivot as big as the market, the three founders shifted from producing biochar to producing charcoal made from agricultural waste.
To get excited about this, the trio of founders began to appreciate some significant environmental benefits to their charcoal. First and foremost, they wouldn’t be cutting down trees. Deforestation in Haiti is such a problem that making charcoal from wood is illegal, despite the fact that the entire country uses wood-based charcoal to cook every meal.
Deforestation isn’t an abstract concept in Haiti, they tell me. Given that deforestation contributes to landslides that kill people, Haitians view deforestation as real and present danger.
By using agricultural waste, they realized they could do a lot to protect the most critical aspect of Haiti’s environment.
They moved the base of operations from the agricultural region in the more remote center of the country, to Cap Haitien, the largest city on the northern coast of Haiti and formed the company, Carbon Roots. Delaney moved permanently to Haiti at this point. Sorensen continues to spend about 25 percent of his time in Haiti.
Shortly after the move, Delaney was invited by a social enterprise in Cusco, Peru to come do some consulting. Although he realized he was not feeling well when he got on the plane, he left Cap Haitien for Port-au-Prince bound for Miami, then on to Lima and finally to Cusco. By the time he arrived, he was delirious with fever. He checked into his hotel but quickly recognized he would need some medication. He stumbled into a hospital hoping to get some medication for malaria, thinking that was what he had. They quickly diagnosed him with Typhoid and admitted him with a fever of 104.5. Before he recovered, he developed pneumonia and spent five days in the hospital there, for which he was charged $400, after being told, it would be “kind of expensive,” he says. He noted that he’s glad he went to Cusco because he’s sure he got better treatment there than he could have received in Haiti.
In Cap Haitien, they began making charcoal at scale. Today, the company produces five tons of charcoal every day in 200 small kilns, converted barrels. They are the largest producer of charcoal in the country and likely the only one producing legal charcoal. They sell the product under the brand name Chabon Boul,
Customers tell them that their charcoal is better than other charcoal on the market, that it lights faster, lasts longer and burns more evenly.
Last year, MIT did in-home testing of their charcoal and noted that it is much cleaner burning, with 29 percent less CO2 and 39 percent less particulate matter than wood-based charcoal. They, too, noted that it is more thermally efficient.
It also works well in modern, clean-burning cookstoves.
To date, Carbon Roots has survived almost entirely off grants. They received early, small grants from Arizona State University where Delaney earned a master’s degree in sustainability. The also received a grant from Halloran Philanthropies.
Much of their money has come from US AID’s DIV program for Development Innovation Ventures. The program provides grants in three stages up to $150,000, $1.5 million and $15 million respectively.
Sorensen and Delaney would like to quickly triple their capacity. To do so, they want to buy and install some much more sophisticated and expensive production equipment. They say they need $800,000 to $900,000 for the equipment, which will come from Viet Nam.
The new technology would have significantly lower emissions than their current production process. To create charcoal you create a controlled burn of the material, carefully managing the oxygen to prevent a full burn. The partially burned material, which can be burned again, is charcoal. The fully burned material is ash, they explained.
A local Haitian demonstrates how to make charcoal from wood. Photo by Devin Thorpe.
The new equipment will capture and use the waste heat to dry the raw agricultural waste before it is burned and then will essentially bake the briquettes to harden them, a process that takes days on drying racks today. The new process will also allow them to produce some electricity that will power some of their equipment.
One of the goals the founders have is to create employment for Haitians. They now have 50 permanent employees on working on production. In addition, they employee about 45 workers as day laborers. Finally, they have about 30 women engaged in their new retail distribution system.
Sorensen reminded me, however, that while their goal is to create employment, “this isn’t a jobs program. We have to be efficient.” They are serious about creating jobs for locals. The two are the only expats on the team; all of the other employees are local hires.
Their new retail distribution model will help them employ more people. The model will create what they will call boutiques where women will come in the morning to get charcoal to sell. They will take the charcoal on consignment and will borrow a wheel barrow from the boutique. They will leave their national ID card as collateral. Some women work a route, delivering the charcoal. Others stake out a spot in their neighborhood where passersby will purchase the charcoal. In either case, they return the wheel barrow to the shop at the end of the day and pay for the charcoal they took in the morning. Typically, the women will pocket $13 for a day’s work. With about 70 percent of Haitians living on less than $2 and 50 percent living on less than $1, the profit represents good wages—especially given that they don’t need to buy any inventory up front.
Carbon Roots was selected as part of the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) at Santa Clara University I’ve written about here. Sorensen credits the experience with helping them to put the final pieces together.
Within eight years, the founders hope to have about 25 percent of the charcoal market in Haiti, a market of about $300 million annually. They are excited about the environmental impact that will have on the countryside.
These guys exemplify a “do whatever it takes” attitude. Given the risks they’ve taken, the sacrifices they’ve made in their personal situations, the opportunity costs they refuse to think about, I must say, Delaney and Sorensen are some of the most impressive entrepreneurs I’ve ever met.