Ithaka Institut

Timor Leste - Biochar for Coffee

by Johannes Meyer zu Drewer

In tropical countries, the implementation of innovativ new methods may face important hurdles due to unavailability of construction materials, technology, water, fertilizers, and through economic and transport logistic limitations. How to overcome successfully those limitations was shown in a case study in Timor-Leste where a Biochar pilot project, nested into the smallholder-based coffee value chain, was implemented in 2019 by the Ithaka Institute.

The umbrella project in Timor-Leste is the “Inclusive, Sustainable, and Connected Coffee Value Chains”. A project aiming for an increase in quantity and quality of the coffee produced in the prevailing smallholder-based systems. The project was initiated by the multinational agri-business company OLAM, which is engaged in the coffee export - and was financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The project implementation, taking place in the municipalities of Aileu, Liquiça and Ermera, is executed by Landell Mills (LML). Currently 2778 farmers are involved in the project, this will be expanded to reach 4000 farmers. Beside the rejuvenation and diversification of fields and knowledge transfer regarding the quality of coffee-cherries and beans respectively – The implementation of best-management practices, in particular tree-pruning, is at the core of the project’s strategy.

However, as  tree-pruning is no technique commonly used in Timor-Leste, as it requires additional labour and as the positive effect may be tangible just years after heavy pruning took place - an additional incentivising strategy needs to be applied to foster the adoption of this “novel” pruning technique.

At this point the Biochar work-package of the project, supervised and executed by the Ithaka Institute for Carbon Strategies, comes in.

The pruning of aged coffee plantations can generate substantial amounts of underutilized biomass available for pyrolysis. The consecutively generated char can be used in the form of Biochar- based fertilizers and nursery substrates - bigger fragments can also be utilized as charcoal, i.e. as clean cooking fuel for subsistence use or to be sold as an alternative stream of Income. These opportunities are deemed to function as tangible benefits to the farmer and incentivise the pruning of coffee trees as a preceding operation to obtain biomass for pyrolysis

In 2019 the Ithaka Institute for Carbon Strategies designed and established a prototype for smallholder-based Biochar production and various Biochar applications nested in the Timorese coffee value chain. Further a feasibility study and field trainings were conducted and the upscale and multiplication to several pilot sites was prepared.