When Camilo Pagés and Alex Eaton traveled across central Mexico in 2010 offering farmers a solution to common problems like the lack of clean energy and dependence on costly chemical fertilizer, the duo ran into a lot of skepticism.
“Imagine a blond gringo and a Mexico City guy talking to farmers about how to use manure to produce energy and make great fertilizer,” Pagés recalled. “They would say, ‘You crazy guys!’”
But that’s what they offered: an easy-to-install “mechanical stomach” that transformed manure into organic fertilizer and biogas, an efficient alternative energy source. They had just patented their biodigester, and were looking for early adopters willing to try out the technology.
“It wasn’t easy,” Pagés told AQ, explaining they had to install demonstration systems and show farmers the blue biogas flame.
The two friends had been keen on starting a business with high social and environmental impact. Despite the initial challenge, they saw the technology as “a no-brainer.”
Many farmers eventually saw it that way, too.
Now, biogas has entirely replaced wood or propane as fuel for cooking and heating water on some small farms. Larger farms are using biogas to run machines for milking cows, pumping water and shredding feed. Sistema.bio has also designed biodigester-compatible household appliances — all of which help mitigate global CO2 levels.
To help farmers with another common problem — the lack of accessible financing for new technology — Sistema.bio offers clients interest-free loans that can be paid off in up to two years.
The business model works. Sistema.bio became profitable in 2014, then took off. They have 60 employees in offices across Mexico, Colombia, Kenya and India, and have installed 3,500 systems to date. The company’s sales revenue for 2017 topped $1.3 million.
By 2021, Pagés and Eaton hope to have 300,000 users in 15 countries. Their rapid growth in Kenya, where they’re currently shipping 200 biodigester systems per month, suggests their goal is attainable.
Much of this success, Pagés said, is due to the relationships the company developed with rural communities around the world — starting with that trip in central Mexico.