With the beginning of COP21 this week in Paris, everyone is talking about how to combat climate change. The biggest challenges lie in developing countries where pollution and waste are often by-products of these countries’ efforts to catch up economically. Biocomp is offering their solution for sustainable development in Nepal that uses waste to create economic opportunity through compost. Biocomp was recognized as a UNFCCC Momentum for Change Lighthouse Project in 2012. I had the opportunity to hear from Quirijn van Olden, one of Biocomp’s co-founders, about the project.
Can you tell me the story behind how Biocomp was founded? What was the inspiration behind this partnership between European and Nepalese people?
The idea for Biocomp came from a Frenchman called Marc Tessier, who was staying in Nepal at a turning point in his career. He saw the pressing waste problem in Kathmandu and decided that something needed to be done about it. I got involved in the project late 2009 through Marc’s brother in law, Erwan Saouter, when we both joined the project in its early stages. Marc unfortunately left the project before it was officially founded, and was replaced by our third co-founder Frank Schreve. In 2010 and 2011 we formed key partnerships, and finalized and implemented the proof of concept. Biocomp was then founded as a legal entity in November 2011.
In this period, we also conducted a market survey with more than 70 farmers around Kathmandu, in order to better understand their needs and future price points. We also started selling and partly also giving away compost in order to promote its use and approach potential future customers. An important milestone was when we implemented the legal structure that enabled us to have a European shareholder base for a Nepalese company and allowed us to finance the ‘scale up’ phase in 2013 and 2014. We changed locations to our current site and acquired machines that enable us currently to take in around 20 tons per day on average.
All of our staff in Nepal is Nepalese, with the exception of the managing director, who is Dutch. From the earliest possible stage, we have involved all Nepalese stakeholders in the project in order to inform them and get their input.
Why and how was it decided to center the business around compost?
This was already decided from the beginning. It was indeed the core of the initial idea: to create value out of organic waste. Organic waste typically makes up around 70% of the total waste in developing countries. So the idea was that if we could tackle organic waste, we would be tackling the majority of the problem.
What is the impact Biocomp hopes to have?
Besides the obvious aim of promoting sustainable agriculture, and of offering a real alternative to chemical fertilizers, there are three specific impacts that Biocomp is aiming to make:
- Environmental: composting, which is an aerobe (i.e. oxygen using-) process, avoids the methane that is emitted if the waste would be left rotting. Methane is 20 times stronger than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Hence, Biocomp contributes to countering global warming.
- Social: Biocomp is providing jobs and fair working conditions for around 30 people. We promote female participation in the workforce as well as the participation of ethnic minorities and marginalized groups in the Nepalese society.
- Economic: we do not want to be a project that disappears once the funding base disappears. The company should (and will!) fund itself through its sales. Due to the low price that we are charging in order to respect the limited buying power of the farmers and to be competitive versus chemical fertilizers, we need a relatively high amount of volume, both in terms of waste intake and in terms of compost output. This need for increased capacity is the reason we have engaged into this current, third funding round.
What has been the biggest struggle in realizing this vision?
People. Having the right team is both vital and a big challenge. We struggled in the beginning to get competent Nepalese leadership on the ground. International NGOs are paying hefty salaries to their Nepalese management (often more than a minister!) and we could not afford to directly compete with them. We have had people related challenges both on the European side as well as the Nepalese side, but thankfully the company has survived them, and it has made Biocomp only stronger in the end!
What achievement is Biocomp most proud of today?
Having achieved the scale up and being the only player on the Nepalese market that is producing compost at an industrial scale. Besides this, we are of course also proud of the fact that we were recognized by UNFCCC Momentum for Change network as a lighthouse project in 2012, and of our contribution to mitigating climate change.
What is planned for Biocomp’s future?
Our main objective right now is to make Biocomp Nepal self sufficient financially. We will achieve this through increased sales volume (and value!), which means we need to further increase production volume and waste intake to a level of 30 tons per day on average. The investments needed to achieve this and the related increases in working capital are the main reason for our current funding round. Once Nepal is self sufficient, we can really call it a success story, and this will open the door to potential further expansion of compost production beyond Nepal. But for now we are fully focused on this initial objective for Nepal. As part of growing our revenues, I am also interested to explore opportunities to sell our compost fertilizer in northern India. Northern India is not far from Nepal, and I suspect that there are bigger potential agribusiness customers than in Nepal with more buying power, since India as a whole is more industrialized. However it is early days: we need to better understand the potential barriers, such as customs duties.
Quirijn van Olden is an experienced Supply Chain- and New Product Initiative Manager who has worked at Procter & Gamble between 1997 and 2014. He is cofounder of Biocomp Nepal, has been an essential contributor during its startup years and is currently an active shareholder. Quirijn is living in Geneva, is married to a Nepalese and father of two sons aged five and eleven. In his free time, Quirijn enjoys the mountains all year round, whether it is for alpinism, ski-mountaineering or climbing.
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