From Slash-and-Burn to Sustainable: How Biochar is Changing Cocoa Farming in Côte d’Ivoire

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading producer of cocoa, but Ivorian smallholder farmers often struggle to make ends meet. Due to low incomes across the sector and low productivity on farms, slash-and-burn practices are widely adopted, which leads to the destruction of local forests to access the fertile soils needed for cocoa cultivation. This land-use change is one of the leading causes of global greenhouse gas emissions. This leads to a vicious cycle as climate change leads to temperature rises and extreme weather events that decrease cocoa farm productivity, causing more deforestation.

At ETG | Beyond Beans, we are committed to providing quality and sustainable products while uplifting the communities we work with. Two of the main ways in which sustainable agricultural policies have been pursued in the cocoa industry are agroforestry and reforestation. Agroforestry is the agricultural use of trees. On cocoa farms, this usually means planting taller trees alongside cocoa trees as a means of providing shade and preventing soil erosion and water evaporation. Reforestation is what it sounds like, planting trees on land which previously held forests, but which have since been cut down. Reforestation involves planting trees on land that previously held forests, allowing them to retake their role as carbon sinks.

While these methods are effective, we are constantly striving to improve our impact and reduce carbon emissions throughout our entire value chain. To this end, we are investing in the development of facilities that will produce biochar. Biochar is a substance similar to charcoal that can be used as an organic fertiliser, created from agricultural waste through a process known as pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is when organic matter, such as a cocoa husk, is heated up in a low-oxygen environment, burning up almost all non-carbon matter and leaving only carbon.

Ordinarily, the carbon stored in a decomposing cocoa husk (or any living thing) is released into the atmosphere. Pyrolysis locks that carbon in a stable form, preventing it from being released for up to 1,000 years. Using biochar is a form of “carbon insetting,” a nature-based solution that prevents the release of Scope 3 carbon emissions. Biochar also serves as an excellent fertiliser, especially when combined with traditional composts, making cocoa farms more productive and de-incentivising destructive slash-and-burn agriculture. This protects old-growth forests that serve as important biospheres and carbon sinks.

Studies still need to be conducted to properly assess the carbon sequestration potential of biochar. ETG | Beyond Beans is collaborating with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) to calculate the optimal balance of fertilisers and traditional composts, as well as how much carbon can ultimately be sequestered. SouthPole estimates that biochar’s sequestration potential is three kg CO2 equivalent per kilogram of biochar and that the global sequestration potential of biochar is two gigatonnes annually. Currently, global carbon emissions are around 33 gigatonnes annually.

ETG | Beyond Beans is preparing to run pilot projects to test the applicability of biochar in live field sites. Our ultimate goal is to expand this project to circularise coffee projects in Uganda, cashew projects in Mozambique, and cocoa projects in Côte d’Ivoire, thereby reducing waste, providing carbon insetting, and minimising the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. Biochar is a bold and innovative project which has the potential to drive real change. We can’t wait to get started.

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