IDEAS Alumni Profile: Takachar, Safi Organics
This year marks 20 years of IDEAS at MIT. 20 years of funding social innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT. 20 years of supporting over 190 teams in over 44 countries around the globe! To celebrate, we’re catching up with old friends: IDEAS alumni!
Kevin Kung, who participated in IDEAS with his company Takachar in 2012, and later followed up with sister company Safi Organics, shares his experience and growth since his time at MIT below.
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Takachar was an IDEAS Grantee in 2012 and received $5,000 in funding to implement their work. Still active today, their mission is to provide alternative models for charcoal production in developing nations, working closely with communities in Kenya where many households depend on charcoal for fuel.
Tell us about your time at MIT. What departments, clubs and/or organizations were you involved in? Did anything influence the development of your project?
I got my PhD (2017) in Course 20 (Biological Engineering). I did my PhD research mainly with a Course 2 advisor, though, Ahmed Ghoniem, as a fellow with the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design. My PhD experience entirely transformed how I saw Takachar.
Outside of that, I was involved in a lot of clubs and organizations during various times of my 8 years at MIT: Graduate Student Council, Engineers Without Borders, MIT Symphony Orchestra, MIT Emergency Medical Services, MIT Global Startup Workshop, and MIT Waste Alliance, of which I was a founding member and president.
I also took a few D-Lab classes, which is where I first learned about the charcoal conversion process.
Tell us about your IDEAS venture! How did your idea originate and what were your goals in pursuing this work?
Takachar started out of an unrelated trip I took to Kenya as part of a Sloan Global Health Delivery class. This is where I originally noticed charcoal being traded by the side of the road.
Even though charcoal had nothing to do with our consulting project with Sloan, it caught my curiosity, so I made a mental note to investigate this further after I returned to Boston.
When I started prodding the subject further, I found that throughout the world, around 2 billion people cook with a solid fuel such as charcoal every day. Most of this charcoal is made by cutting down trees, many of which never get planted back. The charcoal I saw back in Kenya was a product of this process. I started Takachar originally with the intention to produce charcoal from plant-based residues, thereby avoiding cutting down trees.
What first drew you to the IDEAS program? How did you get involved?
I found IDEAS through Laura Sampath, former director of IDI. She first recommended IDEAS as suitable for my project. Initially, we needed some funding to do the prototype and the seed funding for the IDEAS program really helped us get started.
What’s something that has stuck with you from this experience? What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say the best advice I would give is to remain focused on one opportunity at a time, even though other opportunities look equally attractive. It’s often hard to decide where to place your attention and your energy when you’re first getting started. Takachar went through months of research, sometimes to no new ends. But, eventually, we grew an understanding of our own work and where this project could really thrive. Focusing on one thing at a time really helped us make progress without getting overwhelmed with the plethora of options and choices we faced.
How did your work change or progress after IDEAS? Is your project still active? If not, what kind of work are you pursuing now?
Takachar is still active and currently supported by the Cyclotron Road program, which is specifically designed to help engineers and scientists working on promising cleantech concepts. Takachar was fortunate to be the first company in the Cyclotron Road program to focus on biomass, and to explore a non-U.S. market (India and Kenya, for example).
From my initial work with Takachar in Kenya, I met a local agribusiness manager, Samuel Rigu, who grew up as a rural smallholder farmer. He saw strongly the potential for Takachar’s technology to make a biochar-based fertilizer from crop residues, so together we launched a sister organization called Safi Organics, which helps farmers use technology to produce a carbon-negative, locally-produced fertilizer blend to increase yields while reducing soil acidity. As of 2020, Safi Organics has grown to be financially profitable, having 8 full-time employees and 3,500 customers.
What did social impact mean to you when you first started? What does it mean to you now?
When I started, Takachar was very much a public service project. We wanted to improve the livelihood of the underserved populations in an underserved market. We also wanted to reduce waste and air pollution environmentally. At that time, I thought that Takachar was a very “special” business because in addition to making profits, we would need to tend to the welfare of these underserved populations. At first, I understood social impact as a part of our work, but I had always separated that part from the business side of what we were doing. In some sense, there was a tension or trade-off between an organization’s financial viability and its social/environmental impact.
But now, I don’t see social impact as something that is separate or distinct from the core of our business, which is fundamentally profit-seeking in nature. The way I see it is the more money we make for our shareholders, the greater social and environmental impact we can deliver to these underserved populations. We have designed our business such that it is impossible to separate the two. Social impact is inherent to the way Takachar does business, even (and perhaps especially) as a for-profit organization.
To learn more about Takachar, visit them online:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BiomassTakachar
- Twitter: twitter.com/BiomassTakachar
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/Takachar
To learn more about Safi Organics, visit them online:
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SafiOrganics/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/safi_organics1/
- Twitter: @safiorganics
Interested in learning more about IDEAS? Check out the IDEAS webpage to learn more about the application cycle, final showcase, and funding opportunities!