Takachar: Offering a lucrative solution to crop burning

The Delhi-based startup converts waste biomass into fuels, fertilisers and speciality chemicals at the farmgate resulting in surplus income for farmers

Neither the torrid summers nor the harsh winters prepare the residents of Delhi for the deadly annual assault in autumn when the air turns into a toxic soup of chemicals. A thick layer of smoke from seasonal crop burning in Punjab, parts of Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh envelops the national capital, plunging the already poor air quality into “severe” and “hazardous” categories. According to a Greenpeace Southeast Asia analysis of IQAir data, “Delhi sustained an estimated 54,000 avoidable deaths due to PM2.5 air pollution in 2020, or one death per 500 people”.

Regardless of the laws that ban stubble burning, impose fines and authorise arrests, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research estimates about 23 million tonnes of paddy straw torched every year in north India. That’s because farmers racing against time for the next sowing do not have a credible, affordable and accessible alternative. Can Takachar, a Delhi-based startup, founded by Vidyut Mohan, an engineer, and Kevin Kung, an MIT alumnus, clean up the air and protect farmers’ interests?

Takachar founders: (second from left) Vidyut Mohan and Kevin Kung

What’s the Innovation
Takachar has developed a low-cost, small scale, portable reactor that can be set up in remote areas where crop residues are generated. The technology, arguably, reduces particulate matter, volatile matter and CO emissions by more than 95% when compared to open burning of crop residues. The machine takes in all kinds of crop and forest residue and roast them at a high temperature under oxygen-starved conditions. Called Torrefaction, the thermal process involves expunging the low-energy molecules of the feedstock in the form of gases, leaving behind a carbon-rich residue. “Our in-situ solution supplements farmers’ income by up to 25% at the farmgate while saving costs on transportation of crop residue by up to 75%,” says Vidyut, the CEO of the firm that bagged the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship in 2019. “We are on a mission to fight climate change and mitigate close to 700 mn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emission by drastically scaling up the utlisation of waste biomass to produce fuels, fertilisers and other speciality chemicals. The fellowship was a crucial validation of our goals,” he says.

It’s a win-win for all. There is no crop-burning; the farmer is happy with the extra income, and a village-level entrepreneur who sets up the machine can earn between Rs 4 lakh and 5 lakh every year, claims Vidyut. Depending on the feedstock, the carbon-rich output has a wide variety of applications. For instance, rice husk is ideal for fertilisers while coconut shells are best suited to make activated carbons.

After numerous iterations since the idea found articulation in Vidyut’s project for a master’s programme at the Technical University of Delft in Netherlands in 2013–14, the reactor is now on the verge of completion. “We are fabricating the final commercial product called MiniTorr, which we plan to launch in Tamil Nadu this year if Covid permits,” he says. Vidyut’s collaboration with Kevin who had been working on the same idea at MIT for a doctoral thesis accelerated the scaling up of the product. Kevin’s research was funded by Tata Trusts for developing India-specific innovation.

The Microtorr reactor (seen above) is just bigger in production capacity than the Minitorr, which will be launched in Tamil Nadu later this year

Why Takachar?
“Many of the existing solutions in the market process biomass in a completely inert environment. The cost of these reactors is upwards of Rs 1 crore and can go as high as Rs 10 crore. While they may have a higher yield of carbon-rich products than our reactor, the prohibitive pricing makes them out for reach for rural entrepreneurs. Our innovation has simplified the reactor design to make it affordable and easy to deploy,” says Vidyut.

Takachar is looking at the activated carbon industry in India that deals in water and air-filtration systems. “We are eyeing a Total Addressable Market of Rs 45 crore in this sector over the next five years. The larger objective, however, is to cater to a wide variety of the biomass market,” he says. Some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations by Vidyut estimate the global biomass market size to be USD 52.5 billion as of 2019 while India’s share would be about 10% of that pie.

In keeping with the business roadmap, Takachar has teamed up with a Kenyan company Safi Organics that produces a proprietary fertilizer formulation for local farmers. “Since they will be using our technology to produce fertilizer, we will fabricate a reactor in India and ship it to Kenya,” says Vidyut.

Awards and Acknowledgments
The startup’s first break came in 2018 when it won the Most Innovative Solution award at the Smart Fifty-50 Solutions to Transform India, a competition organized by IIM-Calcutta and the Department of Science and Technology, GoI. It had also aced the Social Alpha Energy Challenge that year. The Echoing Green Fellowship in 2019 brought the founders into a collective of passionate social entrepreneurs who lead transformative change. In all, Takachar had won 10 awards and grants.

Forest waste pine needles, available in Uttarakhand, is used as feedstock for the reactor

Social Alpha’s Role
In the early stages of the company, SA’s role has been invaluable, says Vidyut. “We work out of the Clean Energy Incubation Centre, SA’s energy lab in Delhi. The not-for-profit platform also introduced us to a wide network of startups, government officials, funding agencies and industry players, which, in turn, catalysed into indirect funding and partnerships on the ground. SA was also generous with financial support when we built our first prototype in India,” he added.

Takachar became an obvious choice when it emerged as one of the winners in the SA Energy Challenge in 2018, says Aditi Arya, Senior Portfolio Analyst at SA. “Moreover, the impact potential of the firm’s solution on the climate and its contribution towards the incremental income of farmers in the agriculture value chain aligned with SA’s impact vision,” she says. SA also rendered financial support for legal consultancy vis-a-vis company-related documents, she adds.