Welcome back to another episode of Happy Porch Radio!
You may already know that, in season six, we are talking about the circular economy across Africa.
Today, we are joined by Audrey S-Darko, who is the team lead at Sabon-Sake, a regenerative agricultural startup based in Ghana.
During this episode, we take a look at the circular economy from the angle of agriculture and bio waste.
You’ll hear about Sabon-Sake’s dual focus, transforming agricultural waste into value-added products, and changing the mindsets of the rural communities that they work with.
The UNCRD has shown that there are over 998 million tons of agricultural waste produced per year, and Sabon-Sake’s solution goes beyond compost and the circular economy to prioritize a regenerative approach.
We discuss the carbon capturing system they use, the role of ecotourism, and the biggest obstacles to educating people and putting waste to use.
Join us to hear more!
As passionate as she is about rural development, has her life work committed to supporting rural communities and their ecosystems with room to grow, thrive and function at optimum best.
She leads Sabon Sake, a research and environmental restoration organisation, working at the intersection of ecotourism and agriculture. Partnering with agro-waste generating communities and easing their transition into a regenerative and circular economy through the recycling of agro/biomass waste into value-added products and through the means of education, boosting both the soil health and ecotourism market of the communities.
“We are a research and environmental restoration organisation focused on not just transforming agricultural waste or biomass waste into value-added products, but then also transforming the mindsets of the rural communities that we work with.” — Audrey S-Darko, @SabonSake
Tune in to find out:
An introduction to Audrey S-Darko and the work she does as team lead at Sabon-Sake.
Sabon-Sake’s dual focus on transforming agricultural waste into value-add products, and transforming the mindsets of the rural communities that they work with.
How Sabon-Sake goes about teaching a mindset shift to see waste as a resource.
Why transforming waste into a resource adds more value to people’s lives.
What Sabon-Sake defines as agricultural waste: residue or waste coming out of farmlands.
The size of Ghana’s agricultural sector as an agrarian society.
How it lacks industrialisation and mechanisation, but there is plenty of willingness and zeal.
The UNCRD stat that there is over 998 million tons of agricultural waste produced annually.
The amount of waste that must be burnt or left to rot in agrarian societies that farm daily.
Composting as one solution to put waste to use.
Sabon-Sake’s focus on creating a circular economy as well as a regenerative economy.
The holistic approach that this necessitates, which goes beyond composting.
How they are using a carbon capturing system to turn biomass waste into stable carbon.
Ecotourism’s closed loop, which protects the environment and generates income for locals.
Audrey’s biggest motivation: researching solutions and having a love for the people.
Why Audrey considers human resources to be the most powerful tool for circularity.
Her long term dream: first to focus on the rural areas, decentralising the approach across communities, dispersing her knowledge beyond herself.
What the biggest challenge she faces is: culture and its impact on mindset.
And much more!
“For us at Sabon-Sake, our focus lies on how we can move on from a circular economy and even dive head-on straight into a regenerative economy as well.” — Audrey S-Darko, @SabonSake
Links mentioned in this episode:
[00:00:04] ES: Hello, and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. In season six, we are talking about the circular economy across Africa. Barry and I are learning a lot this season. Today, we are joined by Audrey S-Darko, who is the Team Lead at Sabon-Sake. Sabon-Sake is a regenerative agricultural startup based in Ghana. It focuses on soil health, and improving soil carbon density, and believes in the potential of sustainable, regenerative agriculture.
I was really excited about this conversation, Barry, and it really didn't disappoint. I think, just looking at the circular economy from this angle of agriculture and bio waste, as opposed to industry waste that we normally look at, it's such an interesting twist on it for me, and I'm so glad that we got the chance to talk about it.
[00:01:02] BOK: Yeah. Normally – not normally, for a season and a half now, we have largely focused on, to use, I think, Ellen MacArthur's terminology, the technical half of the circular economy. It was really fun. Audrey was inspiring, and eloquent and brilliant, and cool, and any of those.
[00:01:21] ES: I want Audrey to be my friend. She's so inspiring. Just all the things that Sabon-Sake are doing are just – even if she just talked about one of the things that they're doing, it would have been like, well, this sounds like a really cool company. Then, she kept adding other things that they're also doing and talking about her motivation behind it and the thought process of working with people and how to make sustainable change. Yeah, really cool. Very inspiring.
[00:01:49] BOK: We managed only one terrible pun [inaudible 00:01:51].
[00:01:55] ES: I know. I was really holding back. I feel like we could have got a few more in, but I resisted.
[00:02:01] BOK: Yeah. Maybe next time. Without further ado, let's meet Audrey.
[00:02:10] BOK: To start us off, if you wouldn't mind just saying hi and your name, and some introduction about the work that you're doing and Sabon-Sake.
[00:02:18] BC: Hi. My name is Audrey S-Darko. I am Team Lead at Sabon-Sake. Sabon-Sake means in the Hausa language to transform, or to make something new. For us, we are a research and environmental restoration organisation focused on not just transforming agricultural waste, or biomass waste, into value-added products, but then, also transforming the mindsets of the rural communities that we work with on how to preserve their environment and to also recycle waste within their communities.
[00:02:56] BOK: Brilliant. Welcome to Happy Porch Radio.
[00:02:58] ASD: Thank you.
[00:03:00] BOK: Really interested. We talked just before we started recording, about how in this season, we haven't talked much about the biological cycle in terms of the circular economy. I'm really excited for this conversation. Let's start to dig, by exploring a little bit more about what you described there. Starting from the last thing you said, with mindset. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means?
[00:03:24] ASD: Just to expand on the mindset issue, I feel that that works, or that should work in tandem with how we teach people in how to preserve the environment, and as well, to see the value in the waste, which should not be called waste. In our case, or in my case, I tend to call it a resource. Starting, first of all, for the community, or the individuals we work with, to realise waste as a resource, first of all.
When they start to shift their mindset from seeing it as not just waste into a resource, then they see how best that can be of value to their lives, and then they begin to value it. Then, when they begin to value it, then they preserve it. When they preserve it, that adds more value in essence to their livelihoods, as well as their development.
For us, it's more of like, to enhance their thinking around transforming waste, through training, through education, through awareness, through discussion, dialogue, and then, as well, getting them to belong. See how it is an advantage for them to make use of the waste, transform it for their betterment. That's how I would talk about transforming mindsets, or the mindset thing linked with circular economy.
[00:04:49] ES: Thank you, Audrey. I love, love the name of your company. It means transform and how your whole conversation already is focusing around that transformation. I love that image and thinking that way. As you said that rethinking of, “Oh, this is a waste product. No. Actually, it's a resource.” That's one of the fundamentals of the circular economy that Barry and I have been coming across time and time again, not just in this season, but in season five as well. I'm going to steal the pun that Barry didn't dare say. Dig a little deeper. I heard you attempted to say it, Barry, but you didn't go there, and I'm going there.
[00:05:35] BOK: I resisted.
[00:05:37] ES: I love a pun. Yeah. Audrey, can you tell us a bit more about the waste side of things? What is the problem at the minute, the system that's producing the waste, which we're now reframing as a resource, and how that's potentially problematic in the current system?
[00:05:54] ASD: Awesome. Our waste currently focuses on agricultural waste. It's quite broad for that term, agricultural waste, or biomass waste. This would entail waste, or residue that's coming out from farm lands. It could be, in our case, it would be sugarcane bagasse, which is basically, byproducts from extracting sugarcane juice from sugarcane. It could be rice husk.
It mainly has to do with the heavy manufacturing side of things for agriculture, where people just have a lot of, let's say, const overs that are left to rot, or burned on their farmland. Our goal, or our way of working with this particular waste, is partner with communities, or these agro waste-producing district or communities, where instead of abandoning them in the open air, or just burning them, which they do in large quantities across their processing mills, we store them, we treat them, and then extract, or extract maximum value from the waste, instead of it being abandoned. That's what we do. Our focus at the moment has been with waste, like sugarcane, which produces one of the largest biomass residues across agricultural waste. Then you have rice husk, and the likes.
[00:07:25] ES: Thank you, Audrey. You're based in Ghana, I believe. I don't have the numbers off the top of my head of how big the agricultural sector is in Ghana. I don’t know. Is that something you happen to know?
[00:07:39] ASD: I could guesstimate, and probably quite close to the right figures, because Ghana is an agrarian society. You have over a million farmers. By the same time, you have about 50% of GDP coming from agriculture, between, let's say, 40% to 50%. I stand to be corrected, but I know that's been quite prevalent over the years. You find a lot of people either having it as a main occupation, or a side hustle, or some hobby. It's quite big. It's just not super industrialised, or mechanised to support the willingness and zeal people have for farming, but they're doing excellent so far. There's an amazing region to actually start agriculture, or want to have community to do that with you.
[00:08:30] ES: Yeah. I think that's really interesting, because we have that, as you said, a really huge part of the whole national economy. When we're looking at that transition to a circular economy, the agricultural sector has to come into it. All this waste that you're talking about being produced, it's actually on a huge scale, when you think about how much agriculture goes on across the country. I don't really have a question, it just blows my mind that this isn't really something that we've spoken about so much, when it comes to the transition to circular economy, that agriculture seems to have been almost left behind a little bit. Is that something that you recognise?
[00:09:11] ASD: Yes, exactly. Just to buttress that point, as well, globally, according to the UNCRD, since our company is also a research organisation, we tend to also feed off scientific facts and research. Globally, according to the UNCRD, there are over 998 million tons of agricultural waste produced per year. It just goes to show how much that industry, or sector is also neglected, just globally. Imagine, with agrarian societies, where people are farming on the daily, the amount of waste that’s either being burnt, or left to rot, when it can be recycled, or when it could be reused, or repurposed for the good.
[00:09:58] ES: Yeah. I can see that. I suppose, a question, listening to this, a question that might come up would be, okay, so yeah, there's a lot of agricultural waste that comes up when you're farming at such a huge scale. Can it just be composted? Isn't that the point of these organic waste streams that it can just go back into the ground in some way? What would you say to that Audrey?
[00:10:26] ASD: That's a very good question, a very good, how do I call it? Statement. I feel, it's also a great branch that a lot of organisations know a lot of communities are going into. I mean, it's a good way to put waste to use. For us at Sabon-Sake, our focus lies on even how we can move on from a circular economy and even dive head-on straight into a regenerative economy as well. It's more of like, we're trying to put one foot in the circular economy, and then jump onto regenerative.
That necessarily would take a holistic approach. That would mean that not just composting. It would mean that, how are we making use of resources that have been depleted as a result of the conventional ways, and then build upon that to better the agriculture system? For us, at the moment, we are currently using a carbon capturing system that allows us to turn these biomass waste into stable carbon, such that it's stored into the ground to help mitigate climate change. As well, it becomes a soil additive that can help act as a good catalyst for composting.
We're helping people compost a bit faster, because we know that composting takes quite a number of months, or weeks for it to mature. Then our passes, as well, as helping to better the climate, or the environment can also help stimulate the processes for composting a bit more faster.
[00:12:12] BOK: I love the fact there, Audrey, that you're talking, you introduced the term regenerative as well, because that – well, it’s very inspiring. That example you just gave there, I think is brilliant. It’s not just, in the same way that I often say, recycling is it's not just recycling in terms of circular. It’s not just composting in terms of bio waste as well. I mean, that's part of it, but it's not all of it. You're talking there about doing carbon capture and facilitating, or being a catalyst for the rest of the process. I think that's brilliant. Do you have any other examples of the work that you're doing that can make it real like that?
[00:12:50] ASD: Yes. I talk about the ecotourist side of things, where, for me, I would see a bit of the practice of circularity there. We currently reside within a community that has a UNESCO – is a UNESCO-run society. It's a wetland, a conservation area. Over there, you have tourists coming through. You have both locals and people outside of the region coming to either go into [inaudible 00:13:23] Safari, or deciding to just see how sugarcane waste is turned into, let's say, a swell booster, or how sugarcane juice is produced into a local gin or rum, for instance.
For us, we realise that having the need for, let's say, local management, where when tourists come, you have less the revenue that comes in, stay within the community, where the tourists generate income for the community. Then from there, the community is able to save a percentage of that into a local fund that helps maintain the tourist site, as well as support their livelihoods.
Then where that revenue as well, is reinvested back into that nature-based ecosystem, or ecotourist site. Then, that creates a closed loop, where the environment is being protected, sources of income are also trickling down to the locals and as well, going back into the, let’s say, the reserves and the wetland areas, or the tourist attractions. That's one example where I see circular economy.
Then, the second one would simply be with how a turning, like the biomass waste sugarcane for instance, using the leaves, or the trash as we call it, or the bagasse, and then turning that into soil boosters, that help farmers within our regenerative farming network to apply, before they start planting. That since, the waist instead of it bent, is transformed into something that is helpful for – good for soil health. It goes back into the ground, produces plants, and yields that are good and strong, and then goes back to feed the world, and then the cycle continues. Those are the two perspectives, or angles I see it. I feel like, there could be more.
[00:15:24] BOK: That's so amazing. So amazing. I love the fact that, in that first example, when you're talking about this full human, social part of that process and keeping things local, and making that closed loop. I don't have a question. I just think that's awesome. Also, tying that back to what you described at the start, when you were talking about the mindset change, I assume that is, when you talk about the community aspect there and things like ecotourism, and the viewing waste as resource, I assume this is what pulls it all together. Is that a fair assumption?
[00:16:02] ASD: Yes. It's a fair assumption. Also, creating the avenue for people within the community to see themselves as stewards. Not force, not some coerced situation, but they feel like, “I need to own up to this and take care of it. Because of that, I'm willing to stand up and manage this resource. I'm willing to tell another farmer who might not be convinced yet that burning biomass waste is not good, and say, “Hey, stop. We could use this for something else.””
Or, being able to be strong and say, “I will take care of this water body that is right next to my house, instead of dumping the waste, because it would give me a source of income, that’s one. There'll be a better economic spillover, for instance. Then, as well, I'm able to preserve the landscape that I reside in.” It's more of like, making them own up and have a sense of belonging as well to the process of trying to protect your environment, preserve the landscape, and to take care of resources that they first thought was waste.
[00:17:16] ES: I think that is so important, Audrey, what you just said of that sense of ownership. Yes, stewardship, you mentioned as well, of the land that we reside on and rely upon for our well-being and nutrition and livelihood in some cases. Yeah, really an essential part of this whole transition towards a circular economy. I really think, one that can't be understated. You just keep mentioning other things that you're doing at Sabon-Sake. Like this, “Oh, yeah. We do the thing with regenerating the soil and making carbon capture stuff. We also do the thing with ecotourism. We also do research.” It sounds like, there's a lot going on. I would like to know a bit more about your story, like what motivates you and what got you here in the first place?
[00:18:11] ASD: Okay. I'd say, it's research. Research is at the apex of the pyramid, and then you have agriculture, then you have nature under ecotourism, or nature-based tourism. Research got me to start this. I think, I've just been led by curiosity over the period of my life. Maybe it's a short one, short life, but I decided to take a trip while I was in college. That was because Ghana here had started a sugarcane factory, and had set up really huge sugarcane factories across the country.
Then, we were all excited, because it meant employment, better livelihoods, out-grower schemes, where sugarcane farmers can then supply to these factories. All of a sudden, we hear it’s collapsed. Money spent, money gone. Then we hear, it's been resuscitated, we are happy again. Then we hear, it's collapsed. Okay, now that sounds very, very repetitive and sad. I was reading a newspaper one day, and I was like, “Why is this happening?” I've been very spontaneous from birth. I just took a trip. I left on the weekend of my final year, and then took a trip to a sugarcane village. I was like, “I'm going to find the solution to this problem, to make sure that these factories don't collapse again.”
Then after that, I spent months and weeks going back and forth in these communities. Then I realised that in order to actually produce the yields that are adequate enough to supply these factories, we need to ensure that the soils are good enough, which they weren’t at that time, especially with community I work with. They weren’t good enough to be able to produce those large quantities and get these farmers excited about wanting to be out-growers for the factories.
It started like that. Then from there, I just fell in love with the whole nature, the water, the people. Born out of research, I said, “Why don't we make this a project and then get the people onboard to actually steward it?” That's how it all began. Just on the side, I'm also from a family of agriculturists. My grandfather was one. My dad was as well, aside his corporate job. We spend time picking sweet apples and planting avocados in our backyard, in our small backyard. That was fun to see. It was just great, trying to do this for a larger space, or landscape, which is the community we work with in Ghana right now. That's how it all began. I hope I don't give up. So far, it's been an amazing ride.
[00:20:56] ES: Wow, that is so inspiring. I was just listening like, “Oh, that's so cool. Audrey’s so cool.” I love that you saw this problem. These factories are coming and going, there's no sustainability here, I think I can help solve this problem. Then, not only looking just at that, so enclosed problem of the factories themselves, but realising that in order for – whatever solution you come up with to be sustainable, it has to be based in the natural environment that is actually producing those resources, that sugarcane, the soil itself needs to be taken care of.
Just looking back, historically, I think, human civilisation has not been good at doing that. Looking at these small scale, short-term problems, and not looking at the bigger picture and thinking, “Oh, wait. The effect that we have now on the natural environment is what is important, because that's going to help us to maintain whatever it is we're trying to build.” Very inspiring.
[00:22:07] ASD: Thank you. That's actually really cool. I feel like, that's an approach to let's say, the circular economy, that should be added. I feel like, trying to get the people involved, and to create that holistic approach where we know that the people can help make this more sustainable, even if there's a system, a process, some technology that can help create circularity. If we can get the human resource to also have that mindset and be part of it, they have the longer end of the stick to actually ensure that circularity is maintained, or sustained over the time. Well, that's what I think, at least.
[00:22:49] ES: Yeah, for sure. That's what this transition is all about. It has to be maintained. We can't consider it as a short-term fix. Yeah, that long-term thinking is really essential here. In terms of that long-term thinking, when you think about yourself, and you think about Sabon-Sake, and also, the other people that you work with, the people who are, as you say, taking ownership of the land themselves, and also the responsibility for it, what's your big dream? What's the, if we’re to zoom ahead, I don't know, 10 years or something, what does it look like?
[00:23:29] ASD: Whoa.
[00:23:31] ES: Small questions. Small questions.
[00:23:36] ASD: Bullseye. That's the big dream, yes?
[00:23:39] ES: Yeah, the big dream.
[00:23:42] ASD: The big dream would be to actually, first of all, focus on the rural areas. I think, the urban landscapes get it, or are getting it. Then, at least for this part of the continent, or my country, Ghana, I'd say that, first of all, is to focus on the rural development of rural communities. Then, try and set up these small scale, I call them villages. We call them regenerative, or if you may, circular villages, where you have a network of people within these various communities. Having consistent dialogue, or discussion about these things, how we can make waste the resource and mobilise it for our good, and then create those small scale processes, making it more open source for them to actually tap into it, experience it for themselves, and see how they can apply it to their lives.
Then from there, I'm hoping that that approach can be decentralised across other communities, across other organisations, across other institutions, whether it be in your office, whether it be in your house, whether it be in a farmland, whatever it is, decentralising those approaches and making it very open towards and creating those consistent dialogues, where they are ambassadors for that mission. For us, if we can do that in one community that we are working in, and then move on to the next community in the next 10 years, and do that to the next and hopefully, capture an entire region. The region, it could be about maybe 20 districts with 20 communities. That would be the big dream. That would be the big objective.
It then means that the solution will not just lie within myself, but then it will be decentralised and dispersed to other people. Then it proliferates, and then it goes on and on and on and lives beyond like myself, and then my organisation and the people that we work with. That's the big dream. Decentralise the approach, decentralise the thinking around waste as a resource, and then get people to actually create that dynamo effect across the regions and then across the country.
[00:26:10] BOK: That's a brilliant answer to that question, Audrey. Thank you. I was just, took a moment to absorb what you're saying there. We've used this before, already in this conversation inspiring. That's awesome. Here's another easy, difficult question. What's the challenges, the challenges that you face right now, when you look at, okay, that would be the wonderful dream? What are the challenges that you're facing right now to making steps towards that dream?
[00:26:37] ASD: Whoa. That's another big question. No worries. Just growing your legs, I think it would be culture, because culture affects your mindset, right? Culture takes a long time to actually build and to actually be established. To be honest, that's been a major challenge where – Currently, I work with a community, where I don't really speak the language. I'm learning to. That's not necessarily a barrier. Then, it means that I have to quickly evolve and learn it for myself and the people that work with me and within the community, to quickly adjust and create that rapport, where people can just pick up the idea and flow with it.
That's one, culture, where you have people already have in their – how do I call it? They already have their preset notions, or things of how to do things, conventional ways of doing things. When you bring that idea and say, “Oh, this might be a great way to try the things.” There’s a bit of hesitation. A challenge there has been culture, and trying to break that down, or trying to create those opportunities for people to want to at least listen to you. I think, so far, we've done our best and it's getting better. The way out, in order to create that culture has been to create dialogue, consistent dialogue.
For us, if we can do that more frequently, it would be more easy to be frank. That's been a major challenge, culture. I think that could also affect, whether you're in Africa, or whether you're in Europe, or the Americas. Cultures is a huge issue. Another thing, yeah, I think that last meeting. That's maybe.
[00:28:38] BOK: Okay, yeah. That's awesome. I think, that's really interesting. It's like, the other side of the coin of the mindset shift change, and then the opportunity. A theme that we've seen on several conversations, but especially in this conversation today Audrey is that, as you started talking there about mindset, about how important it is to be the role of people and then your dream was about the community. That is the challenge as well is could people – culture and people are challenging.
We're starting to run out of time for this conversation, unfortunately, and I feel like, we've barely touched on so many of the things that you and Sabon-Sake are doing. As we start to wind off, one question for you, how do – if people want to find out a little bit more about the work you're doing, or support, or cheer along with the work you're doing, is there any ways they can find out more, or get in touch?
[00:29:31] ASD: Yes, Barry. We're launching a new version of our website pretty soon. It's probably already up, but it will be in better – it will be out a better version by, let's say, the weekend. You can catch us on www.sabonsake.com. You could also catch us on Twitter @sabonsake. Then, as well on Happy Porch, you could get.
[00:29:57] BOK: Yeah. On the podcast. Very shortly. Awesome. Very finally, is there anything, before we sign off in this conversation, and thank you so much for joining us. Is there anything before we go that you would like, that we haven't touched on that you'd like to mention?
[00:30:13] ASD: I would say, I think it definitely begins with us, if we have to create and establish solidly circular economies within major economies. That would mean that one, not giving up, that would mean that seeing the value in the human resource within communities to be able to proliferate that idea, or proliferate processes, and establish systems and approaches that have to do with a circular economy. Then as well, collaboration. I'm hoping really that I get to meet other organisations within the space, where we can partner, collaborate, to actually ensure that this mission, or circularity and regenerative agriculture, or building regenerative or circular economies can come to fruition through collaborations and partnerships. That's what I have to say. I'm really happy to be here. Thank you.
[00:31:11] BOK: Awesome. Thank you so much. For everybody listening, sabonsake.com. Also, we'll put all those links and everything we've talked about, as usual, on happyporchradio.com. Thank you so much, Audrey. It's been a real pleasure and honor to have you speaking to us today.
[00:31:28] ASD: Thank you so much. Thank you, Emily. Thank you, Barry.
[00:31:30] ES: Thank you, Audrey.
[00:31:32] ES: Thanks for listening to this episode of Happy Porch Radio. Hope you enjoyed it. You can hear more of our episodes at happyporchradio.com. You can also get in touch with us there. Let us know what you think. Let us know if you have any ideas, or if you want to talk to us about something. We'd also love it if you can share these podcasts, review, rate, tell your pals, tell your neighbors, tell everyone.
[00:31:54] BOK: Tell your dog.
[00:31:55] ES: Tell your dog. Listen along with the whole family.
[00:31:59] BOK: My name is Barry and I find at happyporch.com and Happy Porch Fund and Support Podcast. At Happy Porch, we do technology and software development for purpose-led businesses. We are particularly excited about the role of digital as an enabler for the circular economy. If you're working on solutions to the big problems we face today, problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and global inequality, then let's connect. Visit happypoch.com and get in touch.
[00:32:25] ES: My name is Emily. I am a coach, a facilitator and a podcaster. My projects focus on personal development, innovation for a better world, connecting with nature. My latest podcasting adventure, alongside Happy Porch Radio, is exploring the world of carbon removal. Find out more about this and everything that I do at emilyswaddle.com. Or you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.