Black Earth Project

Contact name: Peter Kettler
Phone: 608.437.7275
Project URL:
Organization Name: Radio Lifeline

Project: Black Earth Project
Location: Rwanda
Projected Impact: 75,000+ farmers and their families

Project Description
While coffee farming has never been easy, the combined effects of climate change, population growth, increased competition for land and resources, as well as the mounting problems associated with food security, have presented producers with an unprecedented set of nearly simultaneous challenges. Faced with lower yields, higher input costs, mounting food insecurity, and a volatile market, many producers are considering giving up coffee altogether or reducing their dependency on this single crop in favor of other, more dependable sources of income.

While some government agencies in the region have promoted the increased use of petrochemical fertilizers to ensure consistent yields, the escalating cost and unreliable availability associated with these inputs, together with increased levels of soil acidification due to their prolonged use, are evidence of an unsustainable solution. Biochar may offer one of the most low-costing, sustainable, highly effective, and environmentally sensitive approaches to soil amendment and fertilization available today. Farm-centered Biochar projects have demonstrated an ability to increase yields, lower input costs, and decrease deforestation. Biochar also offers coffee farmers the ability to create a “carbon negative” cycle of production. This lessens the overall carbon footprint of the global coffee industry, while potentially creating another revenue stream for farmers and cooperatives as carbon markets continue to form all around the world.

Launched in the Spring of 2013, Black Earth Project is a research initiative that seeks to determine the benefits of using Biochar as a soil amendment by small-holder coffee farmers. This project measures Biochar’s effects on both the cash and food crops currently being grown by the farming families in the region. Working with agronomists in the coffee sector of Rwanda, the Black Earth Project has embarked on a series of field trials, collecting specific data on Biochar’s effect regarding improved soil fertility, as well as its impact on crop yield and crop quality.

Designed to quickly demonstrate the benefits of Biochar to participating farmers, Phase I trials incorporated the planting of bush beans into 18 test plots located in each of the major coffee producing regions in Rwanda. Bush beans were chosen due to their relatively short, three-month crop cycle. All test plots were planted on March 15th and harvested within a two-week period between June 22 and July 5th of 2013. Upon harvest, sample plants were compared for differences in root development and cumulative yield. The beans planted in a mixture of Biochar and 50 percent of the usual NPK fertilizers, demonstrated an average 35 percent increase in yield, while those planted in plots treated solely with Biochar saw an average increase of 19 percent. Several cooperatives realized yield increases of more than 50 percent, while one cooperative saw an increase of nearly 70 percent. It is expected that the benefits of Biochar will continue to multiply over several seasons, as microorganisms begin to multiply.

Phase II of the project was launched in November of 2013. Phase II consisted of the transplanting of coffee seedlings into the test plots, while simultaneously applying Biochar treatments to 15 existing coffee trees in each of the six participating cooperatives. Early results have demonstrated the benefits of Biochar to coffee seedlings are similar to those realized in Phase I bush bean trials.

Who Will Benefit from this Project?
While in its field trial phase, the project is designed to primarily benefit members of the Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company (RWASHOSCCO) family of cooperatives, currently estimated at 75,000 farmers. Upon completion of the research phase, the Black Earth Project has the potential to be scaled to meet the needs of a significant number of farming communities in various producing regions around the world. While designed to primarily benefit coffee farmers, producer communities will likewise benefit through improved water supplies, increased food production, and a decrease in local deforestation. Each Climate Kiln comes equipped with a briquette-making tool, enabling communities to use the same technology to produce cooking fuels in favor of harvesting trees from surrounding forests to be used in the production of traditional charcoal.

What You Can Do to Help
We invite anyone interested in the future of coffee to make an investment in the Black Earth Project. Radio Lifeline depends on contributions from the coffee industry to continue our work, providing farmers with low-tech, sustainable, and locally appropriate solutions that help to address some of today’s most pressing challenges. Our projects are designed to be scalable and replicable in nearly every coffee producing region, offering this generation of farmers, as well as the next, an opportunity to participate in the promise and prosperity of specialty coffee.

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