Solution Overview

Our Solution

Co-creating rural livelihoods/bioeconomy

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One-line solution summary:

Using internet-of-things-based technology, we create new waste-to-value processes and livelihood in rural underserved communities.

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Pitch your solution.

We enable 30 million people in rural communities to earn up to 40% more income by 2030 by processing local crop/forest residues into valuable products such as carbon-rich fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. This will prevent 400 millions tons/year of residues being burned in open air, and save 5 million lives/year from the effects of severe air pollution in South Asia alone.

This is done through a new, patent-pending, IoT-based chemical process enabling simplified, small-scale, low-cost, portable biomass (crop/forest residue) treatment systems. These systems can be latched onto the back of tractors or donkey carts, and deployed in remote farms, processing small pockets of residues on-site, into valuable bioproducts for local consumption, requiring no external energy. This creates more than $250,000/year per village of additional carbon-negative rural livelihood. Furthermore, our tests show that our technology eliminates greater than 95% of smoke, as compared to open burning of crop residues.

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Film your elevator pitch.

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Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Increase and leverage the participation of underserved communities in India and Indonesia — especially women, low-income, and remote groups — in the creation, development, and deployment of new technologies, jobs, and industries
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In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Delhi, India
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Is your solution working in India and/or Indonesia?

My solution is being deployed or has plans to deploy in both India and Indonesia
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What specific problem are you solving in India and/or Indonesia?

Most rural communities in India are shut out from the nascent bioeconomy, because their crop residues are often too loose, wet, bulky, and expensive to collect and transport for conversion. After harvest, many crops produce residues on the farm that cannot be used as mulch or animal feed, and are too loose/wet/bulky to be economically transported for bioproduct conversion. Therefore, the fastest and cheapest way to address residue removal is simply by setting it on fire in the field. However, burning residues has been attributed to air pollution that affects the respiratory health of nearby urban centers such as Delhi (Subramanian, 2016). Recent studies have estimated that this leads to as many as 1 in 8 deaths in countries such as India, and reduces the affected population’s life expectancy by around 5.3 years (Balakrishnan et al., 2018).

 

In India, around 40 million farmers regularly plant crop varieties such as that yield in-field residues after harvest without immediate economic benefit. In the world, there are about 170 million similar farmers. In total, there are around 400 million tons/year of crop-related residues being burned or wasted worldwide. Assuming that a $16/ton (or $40/acre) value could be created out of these residues rather than being burned (consistent with residue prices in proximity to industrial boilers), this could mean an additional income opportunity of around $6.4 billion/year for these rural communities. 

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Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Our primary beneficiaries are youths in rural communities. Our project creates additional rural job and income opportunities, such that youths no longer need to migrate to urban slums to find jobs. Meet Raspindert: he is from the local village, and joined our pilot production as a worker. After 3 years, he has been promoted to production foreman, and is considering getting an MBA degree to be considered for promotion in our organization. 

Furthermore, our solution also benefits small-holder farmers. Meet Deepa Devi, who holds a quarter acre rice farm in the village of Murari, Uttarakhand, India. She is a subsistence farmer and her only source of income is daily wage labour for which she needs to walk 5 km in difficult mountainous terrain, and which is often not available. As a result she struggles to earn more than $50/month. At the same time, farmers like herself in the village burn the rice straws in their farm after harvest as it is of no use to them. When we worked with Deepa in her village, she hustled to organize a group of 15 other women in the village who collected rice straws from everyone and processed them into carbon rich fertilizers  which were sold to farmers in the village. Deepa and the other women doubled the income for the month, and for the first time in their lives did not have to depend on their husbands working in the city sending money

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How does the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge?

Our solution directly and disproportionately impacts the lives of small-holder farmers in remote, rural areas with limited access to livelihood opportunities other than subsistence farming locally. When our equipment is owned and operated by an entrepreneur in the village, farmers can earn up to 40% more income by selling their crop residues for processing. Furthermore, the users of our equipment run small businesses producing fuel, fertilizer or activated carbon, thereby fostering doorstep job creation through entrepreneurship in remote, rural areas. Our equipment is designed to be maintained and serviced locally, and hence would rely on local mechanics and expertise, thereby further contributing to the economies in remote, rural settings.

Since women in rural areas do not have the opportunity to migrate outside their villages in search of jobs, unlike their husbands, they are often left behind in the workforce. Centralized workforce models and technologies further exacerbate this situation. Takachar’s small-scale, low cost and portable equipment enable us to deploy the machine closer to underserved communities, and in particular women in rural areas, thereby widening the access to such livelihood opportunities. 

We connect the users of our equipment to bioproduct markets locally and worldwide, thereby facilitating their participation in the digital economy and marketplace, and ensuring an off-take market, thereby de-risking the adoption of our equipment. Finally, the low upfront costs of our equipment lowers the risk of finance, thereby opening the doors for adoption beyond wealthier farmers.

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In which Indian States and/or Union Territories is your solution operating?

  • Haryana
  • Tamil Nadu
  • Delhi
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What is your solution’s stage of development?

Pilot
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Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Vidyut Mohan is the co-founder and CEO of Takachar, based in India, and is the Team Lead.    

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More About Your Solution

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new technology
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What makes your solution innovative?

Current technology that enables the conversion of crop residues (biomass) into higher-value bioproducts relies on centralized, capital-expensive (~$500,000), and large-scale (100 tons/day) equipment such as rotary kilns. This requires massive amounts of loose, wet, and bulky raw materials to be collected from long distances, which is very expensive. Furthermore, this technology involves a thermochemical pre-conversion of turning crop residues into a charred precursor, which has two key disadvantages. The first disadvantage is that this pre-treatment step utilizes low-efficiency and polluting pit kilns or mound kilns that are highly polluting to the local water and air. The second disadvantage is that this step is often limited to a handful types of biomass, such as coconut shells and olive pits. This effectively excludes farmers growing other crop types from participating.

 

Our technology is based on a new chemical concept called oxygen-lean torrefaction (developed as company co-founder’s PhD thesis at MIT), which can lead to a new class of patent-pending, small-scale, low-cost, and portable biomass reactor designs that can be deployed in a decentralized manner, with a more flexible range of feedstock options. At the same time, the technology eliminates the traditional water and air pollution by more than 95%, while doubling the conversion’s energy efficiency by combining the thermochemical pre-conversion and the activation step into one. Our unique and proprietary control system enables a much wider range of biomass feedstock types and characteristics to be feasibly converted, thereby opening the market access to many more rural farmers with other crop types. 

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Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

The core technology consists of a new class of small-scale, feedstock-flexible, pollution-free, and autothermal biomass thermochemical treatment system designs previously developed and validated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). We have developed a robust reactor system and demonstrated by experiment and modeling that the system can successfully process a range of input feedstock with different characteristics, into carbon rich fuels, fertilizer or activated carbon precursor, without needing any external heat or energy sources, and with significantly reduced (> 95%) emission of volatile gasses or particulates to satisfy the local pollution standards. We also demonstrated that by adjusting certain flow rates, we can easily tune the reaction condition to satisfy the specific output requirements for applications in the fuel, fertilizer or activated carbon value chain, in spite of the highly variable input feedstock in a way that existing technologies cannot achieve.

Our hardware equipment is supported by a software stack. Each reactor is IOT enabled, and is able to relay key machine performance data to the Takachar team that enables remote predictive diagnostics, thereby reducing the costs associated with field service and maintenance in remote areas. At scale, we envision creating a marketplace for the bioproducts produced from our equipment, where users of our machines can get direct orders from offtake buyers of fuels, fertilizers or activated carbon.

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Please select all the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
  • Big Data
  • Crowd Sourced Service / Social Networks
  • GIS and Geospatial Technology
  • Internet of Things
  • Manufacturing Technology
  • Software and Mobile Applications
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What is your theory of change?

From our experience establishing our pilot, it is easiest to start in a new community by recruiting an elderly farmer (as the champion) with a larger plot whom the younger farmers aspire to be. This champion, being more affluent, can afford to bear more risks. We start by demonstrating our product (for free) on a small section of his plot. By comparing that plot with the rest of his land, it is not difficult to observe improved harvest yield due to reversal of soil pH, as well as restoration of elements of soil health, such as microbial activity and nutrient availability. This typically causes the farmer to purchase more of our product to apply on a larger area of his farm the next season, until he/she becomes a repeat customer. As local farmers are a tightly knit community that tend to imitate each other, generally our product will spread through word of mouth once the early champion confirms the positive results. Many of the farmers using our product choose to sell the surplus harvest to the market, leading to increase in income. The effects are felt even one season after using our product. Most farmers, seeing these benefits, return the next season for our product, expanding the use on their fields and increasing the community's confidence in using it as a standalone fertilizer. This drives the profitability of our localized village-based fertilizer production, which also employs more local youths for fertilizer production in order to meet the growing demand.

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Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Women & Girls
  • Elderly
  • Rural
  • Peri-Urban
  • Poor
  • Low-Income
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations
  • Mid-Career Adult
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In which countries do you currently operate?

  • India
  • United States
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In which countries will you be operating within the next year?

  • Indonesia
  • Tanzania
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What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

Initially we will own/operate the first test unit ourselves in collaboration with two local farmers’ cooperatives (CPC and SRM) in Udumalpet. This will allow us to produce samples that we can take to a local activated carbon (AC) producer (ACPL Ltd.) for validation. A successful outcome will be a financially profitable solution that proves the value proposition with respect to the farmers and the AC producer. 

 

Upon successful demonstration of the test unit, we will scale up to and operate 5 additional units ourselves in collaboration additional farmers’ cooperatives, in more diverse agricultural contexts. We will then approach AC producers like ACPL and United Carbon to sell up to 20 units in their farmer networks. We will provide the training to their employees to run the decentralized equipment in the field, and we will also work with a larger local equipment fabricator (Aganvay Inc.) to produce up to 20 units per batch. At this stage, we will also work with public players such as Pollution Control Board office in Tiruppur North in requiring any new activated carbon processes use our clean-burning equipment and offering equipment subsidy. 

 

As we scale beyond our initial community, we will establish a licensing partnership with a large agricultural equipment manufacturer. We already have established active working relationships with two such companies. This will support maintenance/warranty through their existing local dealer networks. Through this pathway, we will be able to reach at least 10 million farmers through AC producers in different regions by 2028. 

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How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Initially, we will track the technical viability as well as the cost effectiveness of our technology. In this initial small-scale pilot, our ability to measure systematic social and environmental impacts such as increases in farmers’ income, rural livelihood, and overall soil health will be somewhat limited.

 

In the first stage, we have been tracking the social impact on farmers. With their permission, we have been tracking their soil pH, amount of irrigation used, nutrient level, harvest yield, harvest sales, and net income, in comparison with farmers outside of our technology’s production network. If effective, then in regions where our decentralized operation is adopted, we will see an improvement in all these indicators (less acidic soil, less irrigation need, higher nutrient retention, higher yield, etc.) when compared to the data from regions where our operation has not been adopted.

 

Finally, to gauge our project’s commercial viability/scalability, as we scale up our systems, we will start computing the average manufacturing cost per system, as well as the time it takes to return the upfront investment for our implementation partners. We will compare the cost per system with the average yearly incurred cost saving and/or additional value addition of using our system.

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What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?

In terms of technical challenges, we need to demonstrate, in multiple locations and agricultural settings, that our systems can operate under highly stringent requirements in remote settings, often without reliable access to electricity/energy or high-end maintenance services. In rural areas, when things break down, they need to be easily repaired using locally available materials, or else costly shutdowns will follow.

In terms of behavioral change, farmers and prospective implementation partners can be risk averse. They must see proof before they change products. Through our initial pilot with local farmers, we learned quite a few things. For example, in a new community, we found it most effective to first engage older, more affluent farmers who often can afford new products and some risk-taking. Once the product is demonstrated, they often become the influential champion.

In terms of IP risks, patents may not completely protect us against local copycats. Since our hardware is meant to be widely distributed, we will actually be flattered if these copycats start helping us scale our equipment too. However, because the hardware technology cannot operate without our proprietary control system, we can tightly safeguard our control and data as trade secrets, without which the copycats cannot operate. 

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How do you plan to overcome these barriers?

Technically, while we already built a working prototype and financially profitable pilot that can address the requirements named above, we plan to expand to other regions (i.e. Indonesia, Tanzania) to demonstrate the robustness and versatility of our solution, which will be key for achieving successful scaling. In the U.S., we have also raised a total of US$1 million to be specifically used for R&D to make our core technology and process more robust and scalable in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California Berkeley.

In terms of the behavioral change, as we scale, we may encounter challenges reaching out to other geographically disparate communities. We foresee the need to conduct additional localized pilots. Fortunately, our equipment is relatively low-cost and can be operational within a few weeks. In the medium term, working with an existing equipment manufacturer (such as Tata Agrico, Mahindra & Mahindra, and John Deere) with long-standing credibility in many communities is essential to our scaling.

In terms of IP, we have already filed multiple patents. Ultimately, it will be through a combination of patents, locally-tailored nutrient formulas (trade secret), and branding that we will achieve best impact.

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More About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models

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How many people work on your solution team?

Full- time staff:

Vidyut Mohan: Co-founder & CEO

Kevin Kung: Co-founder & CTO

Amit Sharma: Mechanical Design Engineer

Austin Young: Machinist

Rajesh Singh: Operations Lead

Kashish Dhanda: Agronomist

Anjali Rajput: Field Coordinator

Contractors:

Ashish Shreedhar: Mechano Engineering Company (Hardware fabrication)

Nitin Kashid & Lenson Wong:  Prologixs Automation (Electronics and controls)

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How long have you been working on your solution?

Since 2018

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How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Our team combines the technical depth with market expertise in this sector. Vidyut Mohan brings industry-specific knowledge in the activated carbon supply chain, is well connected with the different stakeholders ranging from the rural charcoal producers in India and Indonesia to the large activated carbon and water filtration companies in the U.S. Thus, he understands how our innovation will affect the different stakeholders, and how to design our product to keep them as happy as possible. Dr. Kevin Kung has been developing the core technology at MIT since 2012 and have a deep understanding of the ongoing technical challenges for scaling. He also has 10 years of prior experience working in relevant resource-constrained settings, including Nigeria, Peru, Uganda, Kenya, and India. Prior to co-founding this company, the team members have also worked together in other capacity in biomass since 2011, including selling more than one million low-toxin mosquito coils made from rice husks, and selling biofuels made from Himalayan wildfire-causing pine needles.

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What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?

Our business model is based on decentralised conversion using locally available workforce, rather than relying on highly skilled/trained workforce. By recruiting local, we found this an effective strategy in promoting diversity and inclusion. More than half of our employees are women, and the vast majority are directly from the disadvantaged communities and groups (such as refugees, minority tribes) whom we serve. What unites them are their shared vision in our company’s mission.  Indeed, many of our employees have witnessed first-hand the very issues we are solving (including the company CEO). This has motivated many of them to work towards this vision. The entire founding team comprises of people of color. Two of the three co-founders also came from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

 

To us, a culture that seeks a science-based approach to promote the most viable ideas will, by necessity, actively seek out and value people of different background. As we engage stakeholders, customers, and prospective employees, we consider the different groups and their preferred methods of outreach – some of which can be as unconventional as going to church with them. On our advisor, Lisa Tomlinson is an HR specialist and gives us advice on hiring strategies that ensure diversity/inclusion. 

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What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?

For field deployment, we have been supported by Tata Trusts. We also are recruiting the local Coconut Development Board in Pollachi and Kochi as field pilot partners within their network of farmers. Potential manufacturing/distribution partners, John Deere and Mahindra and Mahindra, proactively reached out to us. As part of our scaling strategy also relies on corporate partnership with large activated carbon consumers such as Brita and Coca-Cola to clean up their upstream supply chain, we envision that these are valid hypothetical prospective partners. Finally, we have signed an agreement with Cargill which could potentially scale cross multiple agricultural supply chains.

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Your Model & Funding

What is your operational model?

Initially, we own/operate our village-based fertilizer production. As we scale, our business model resembles that of a Canon inkjet printer: we sell the hardware cheaply but charge an ongoing usage fee for the proprietary automated control system necessary to operate the equipment safely and consistently. While farmers are the ultimate beneficiaries, our solution will be financed initially by local grassroots agricultural organizations that work with these farmers and whose mission is to improve local farmers' livelihood. Our solution will directly fit into their purview. As this initial group of early adopters show the profitability of our model (around $60,000/year in a full-scale village-based operation), we expect that additional village-based fertilizer production facilities will be set up elsewhere by local microentrepreneurs who wish to derive the same profit. 

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Who is the primary stakeholder you will be targeting to execute and scale your solution?

For-Profit organizations
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Partnership & Growth Opportunities

Why are you applying to the Future of Work in India and Indonesia Challenge?

In order to succeed, we need to develop capabilities in our product that enable it to be deployed and serviced in remote and rural regions. This would require both hardware as well as digital interventions (such as IOT based predictive diagnostics). We can benefit substantially through mentorship from Caterpillar Foundation on this front, and can tap into Caterpillar’s rich experience in deploying hardware equipment in tough environments and using IOT systems for field service.  The MIT Solve community gives us access to an ecosystem with vast experience in deploying hardware and digital innovations for underserved communities in remote, rural settings in the developing world.

Since we are deploying a hardware innovation in a setting with propensity for local copycats to emerge, we feel we need to be innovative in our business model to scale fast and cushion us against this tendency. Receiving support to develop our business model, and test various approaches to sell our product,  by learning from the practical experience of Caterpillar Foundation and MIT solve in scaling hardware ad digital innovations across the world will be very valuable to us.

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In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Business model (e.g. product-market fit, strategy & development)
  • Product / Service Distribution (e.g. expanding client base)
  • Technology / Technical Support (e.g. software or hardware, web development/design, data analysis, etc.)
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Please explain in more detail here.

Product/Service Distribution: Caterpillar has decades of experience selling and distributing hardware equipment and scaling across different geographical and cultural contexts.We believe there rich experience we can benefit from, from a product as well as service distribution standpoint of hardware equipment.We seek to get advice on making our product available, affordable and serviceable to the farmer at the last mile, in a financially viable manner.

Business Model: As we begin to scale, we would love to have a sounding board to develop and test the most optimal business model. We feel MIT Solve and Caterpillar are a good fit in this regard, with vast experience in technology based social entrepreneurship and selling hardware equipment in different contexts worldwide.

Technology/Technical Support: Caterpillar is not only a pioneer in mechanical hardware development, but is also a pioneer in the field service industry through IOT integrations in it’s equipment that enable more cost- efficient hardware maintenance through predictive diagnostics.At Takachar, we feel aligned with this product development vision, and would stand to benefit immensely from Caterpillar’s technical expertise.

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Solution Team

 
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