How to Help the Planet by Helping Small Farmers
Alex Eaton grew up on a farm — and that’s impacted his entire life. Especially now that Eaton is the co-founder and the CEO of Sistema.bio, a patented biogas system that takes animal, human, and agricultural waste and converts it into energy and into fertilizer. The project began in Mexico and Central America, and then it spread rapidly into Africa and Asia with major positive impacts for rural livelihoods. It’s both visionary and extremely practical, and it wouldn’t be what it is today without Eaton’s unique perspective and background.
A staggering — and somewhat surprising — 80 percent of the world’s food is still grown by subsistence farmers around the world. That means there is nothing that is more important in terms of ecological health, social stability, and reducing poverty than helping small subsistence farmers be more sustainable. In his Bioneers 2018 keynote address, Eaton discusses why supporting and advancing small farmers is crucial for climate mitigation and human health at every level, and how Sistema.bio is helping to do just that.
Small farmers for Sistema.bio are farmers that are family based, they’re locally based, they’re community based, they’re intimately working a small piece of land, but together that patchwork of small farmers is actually managing the majority of arable land on Earth. What we do is actually quite simple: We help small farmers transform all of their waste into clean, renewable energy and organic fertilizer.
I started this work about 10 years ago as an exploration of how biogas digesters could work for small farmers and move out of a homemade realm of bricks and mortar and move into something that could be scalable, replicable, and could actually hit the hundreds of millions of small farms around the world.
We were doing a very small demo project in Central Mexico, and this young man Enrique came up to me and said, “I don’t want my mom to be sick anymore. She cooks six, eight hours a day over an open fire, and she has to go to the hospital all the time because her lungs are filled with smoke.” This is what we had really thought about — how do we convert waste to energy so people don’t have to cook over wood fuel? But then he said, “I also haven’t seen my dad in five years. He migrated to the United States to work when our farm wasn’t making enough money, and I really want to make enough money so that he can come home. If I don’t, I’m probably going to have to migrate too.” So that challenge basically a callout for us.
We installed this system with Enrique. We gave him a 10-month loan to pay that system off. Within a month his mom was able to remove wood fuel from their kitchen. She not only was cooking for the family, but they also make this delicious yogurt that they sold locally. The organic fertilizer was used in his fields that he basically had to abandon because they couldn’t afford chemical fertilizer. He increased his yield. That fodder went to the cows. They were able to increase their milk production. They reactivated the small orchard that they had of small indigenous fruits in Central Mexico, which they added to the yogurt. And they started selling more yogurt, producing more food.
The next season, he paid off the loans a couple of months early. The next season they planted twice as much crop as the year before, and Enrique’s father was there to help them harvest, back at the family farm.
What I learned in that time is that the object, the technology, the literal intervention had very little to do with this broader spectrum of how small farmers are integrated, both in our larger economic and social structure. So over the years, that really helped influence us and the people we work with.
Now, I can say that we’ve done that 30,000 times around the world. There are a lot of amazing, unique stories, because small farmers inherently are so different. I could also tell you about a woman in Colombia, a man in Kenya, running a new milk cooperative to empower small farmers, a woman-run dairy in India. They have all these different stories. But they all sort of fall around a couple of central themes.
We have enough data points to say that this technology, this approach, could lift two billion people out of poverty. And the externalities of that would be reducing greenhouse gases, it would be essentially converting waste to energy, and it would be building a deep, beautiful soil for these farmers to continue to work.
Why Small Farms Matter
Two and a half billion people live on small farms — one in three people. That was a surprising fact for me, because I actually grew up on a small farm and it was a little weird to be the stinky kid that had to work harder than his friends. There weren’t a lot of small farmers in our community, but the small farmers that we did work with were some of the closest friends to our family, because we shared this ethic around environmental sustainability, how we were connected to the Earth.
When I later became a journalist and was traveling around the world thinking about this cross section of social justice and environmental sustainability, I realized that small farmers were at the heart of a lot of these stories, and that was really exciting for me because these were my people, these are the people that I had grown up with. I shared a lot more with a Kenyan farmer or a Mexican farmer than I did with a lot of the people that I had grown up with, just because of that shared ethic.
The next thing I learned was that small-holder farmers were growing 80 percent of the food that is consumed on Earth, yet if you listen to sort of industrial agriculture and the propaganda around the food system, you’d make it sound like small farmers really just need to get out of the way because you have to go big or go home. So that was an amazing realization.
This is a really important group of people. However, they’re the group of people most likely to go to bed hungry. And that irony was something that really started to bother me early on. A billion of the world’s poorest people are farmers. But the reality is that we define poverty in a whole different way than I think we should.
Small farmers are managing more than half of the world’s arable lands, and it crucially — in an economy that really recognizes the value of information, they’re holding so much cultural knowledge, they’re holding so much deep indigenous heritage. And in Mexico they’ve been farming for four and 5,000 years. So it’s really humbling to try to come in introduce new techniques to these farmers. But the reality is that we’re not talking about uninterrupted indigenous knowledge. If we were, I think we’d be in a very, very different situation. The reality is neo-liberal economics, colonialism, in some cases genocide, these things have interrupted that ancestral knowledge. There’s been a lot of money spent to sort of undermine the value of that knowledge.
But these are the farmers that are working very closely with the land. They have a special bond to their local environment, and that is worth a lot. I believe they’re not poor, but they have a lot of challenges.
If you’re big or small, really concentrated agricultural waste is what’s creating dead zones in the ocean, choking out our lakes and rivers. Most small farmers are still cooking over an open fire, and they’re spending a lot of money and time to collect that wood, and that’s impacting their health, like it did for Enrique’s mom.
Today, with all of our creativity, the only answer that the international community has for small farmers around the world to improve their yield is add chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Today, still, the green revolution is the only answer that’s being proposed for small farmers.
These challenges for us are extremely important, and what we realized is that farmers don’t have technology, training, capacity building, or financing — really, these very basic things that industrial farmers have access to.
How Sistema.bio Works
Our work is fundamentally a very simple but beautiful alchemy. We’re transforming something they already have — something that’s considered gross, disgusting waste — into something beautiful. In this case, a beautiful blue flame. This is renewable energy. And what we’re doing is essentially making farmers more productive by creating value from waste. This is important because a lot of our work is to challenge the concept of waste.
In natural ecosystems, there is no waste. There are just products for other systems, for other processes. And we really need to start thinking like that as a society, but also, particularly, as farms.
What we try to do with a very simple model is use a simple piece of technology that allows farmers to do that on their farm. We create these extensions of a cow’s stomach, essentially these micro-ecosystems that allow bacteria to break down organic waste. The byproduct of that waste is methane gas, natural gas, that we capture in the top of this big bladder. And that gets captured, and then we can pipe that for cooking fuels, running small engines, chilling, pumping water, doing all the things that small farmers don’t have access to.
Then these organic chains are being broken down. The nutrients that are in that waste are being put in a plant-available form and then can be easily recycled back into the soil to help create deeper soils.
What that looks like is this: A woman that would normally be sitting in a smoky kitchen now has an on-demand beautiful flame, and a woman that would normally not have access to electricity is able to run a small dairy. People that would normally be spending an enormous amount of time cutting up fodder, milking animals, carrying water, now have access to mechanical energy for all of these simple things, and that’s a massive time saver.
We’ve also got this plant available form that instead of having to move tons and tons of waste, we can pump this beautiful liquid fertilizer back into the ground, and for larger extensions, we can actually run tractors with this compressed natural gas. We can add a lot of capacity to the farmers so that we can actually, viably put a ton of land under organic management.
We pair that with a huge amount of outreach. So we’re all around the world. We have 150 dedicated promoters that in 15 different languages today are promoting the technology. They’re local leaders. They’re empowering people to understand the technology. It’s not actually super logical that shit turns into money, so we have to sort of explain that to people in a way that they can understand, and with people that trust us.
And then what we learned early on is just make sure it works, provide world-class service to ensure that these farmers get the promise of the technology, and it works for them every single time. We’re able to do that because we use a little bit of technology. All of our farmers are recorded with GPS on a cloud-based database that allows us to see exactly where they are in the world, allows us to create connectivity between farmers, and ensure that they get the system and the adoption programming that they need.
Now we realized that we can’t try to change the world by putting ourselves into the same financial framework that farmers have been exposed to this whole entire time. When we started in Mexico, the average interest rate for a loan for a small farmer was over 100 percent annual. Can you imagine what that does to the small margins that they have on their work?
So we built a crowd-based funding platform that allowed us to extend zero percent interest loans to farmers. We made sure that they didn’t have to pay. I wish I had access to zero interest loans too, but this, in this case, is really to make sure that they don’t have to pay when they’re buying seeds, they don’t have to pay when they’re buying school uniforms. We really tried to dive into farmers’ lives and extend the payment program so that they could actually be paying only with the savings that they had. We actually tried to make sure that they’re cash flow positive right from the very beginning. And then when they pay off the equipment, that means that all of those savings can be reinvested back in the farm.
We’ve tripled in size over the last two years. We started in Mexico, now we’re serving all of Latin America, through Central America, and in the Andean region. We have a hub in East Africa that’s allowing us to work in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and we’ve just opened an office in India that has been really humbling and amazing. These are all cultures that have been farming for millennia, and to really be able to add something to that conversation, to really help empower those people has been an incredible honor.
A Vision for the Future
So we’ve learned a few things, including that the future of farming is female. And that’s a very important fact. We really tried to lean into that early on. Most of our promoters are female. A huge chunk of our technicians are females. That connection, that empowerment of women impacts way outside of just energy, climate change or agriculture. It’s really the single most important thing, I think, that we can do. Having that be a cross section of everything that we do, thinking how women are leaders in this, really ensures that these benefits come back to the communities.
Another thing we’ve learned is that farmers deserve high quality technology and world-class service. There’s a whole school of thought within development, which is let’s just let the markets take care of it, and neo-liberal economics basically will let you know that small farmers and the poorest people will be given really cheap stuff — something that is inexpensive but breaks really easy. Growing up on a farm, that’s not what we valued. We valued things that lasted a really long time, things that you could repair yourselves, and that’s really what farmers and really the poor in general need access to.
The most important thing we’ve learned is that you really need to connect with people’s hearts. You need to connect with culture. And you need to do that by being really open to integrate your work and see how it fits into other people’s cosmo vision, other people’s worldviews, and into their culture.
What we’re really trying to do is do what we’re doing today but 100 and million times larger. We really want to figure out how this can reach many, many more farmers. We’re also seeing that our platform can process invasive aquatic plants. We can actually take human waste, we can take food waste from markets. There’s a number of other ways this platform, this technology can actually start impacting farmers and agriculture.
We see this as part of a circular economy. How can farmers disconnect themselves from this neo-liberal trap of having to buy their inputs, being sort of stuck with these intermediaries that are buying their products for lower prices, being marginalized because most of the money they make has to leave their economy. How can they sell organic fertilizer to their neighbors? How can they be processing the agricultural products locally?
What we really have our eyes on is a million farmers as soon as we possibly can. Imagine six million people cooking on clean energy, having access to organic fertilizer. Imagine saving hundreds of millions of trees and reducing tens of millions of greenhouse gases, and putting an area the size of California’s vegetable gardens under organic management. It’s something we’re working for as fast as we can.