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Innovation in one of the World’s Oldest Industries—A Report From Kenya

Written by Andrew Foote with significant contributions from Catherine Berner and Benjamin Kramer

There have been great strides in energy access in the past 10 years. We now see consumers using pay-as-you-go solar or even $5 off-grid LED lights. To meet heating and cooking needs however, 83 percent of Kenyans still rely on biomass fuel and industries account for nearly 25 percent of charcoal consumption.

The biomass fuel market, until recently, has been severely neglected by global innovators. This is surprising because biomass fuel is a U.S. $500 million dollar market in Kenya, and also unfortunate because this market creates extremely destructive health and environmental impacts.

Every day, Kenyans must choose between two archaic fuels to cook their food:  charcoal or firewood. Both solutions are responsible for deforestation and indoor air pollution, the latter of which is the leading cause of death for children under five globally. Firewood is particularly time- and labor-intensive, while charcoal is capital-intensive—regularly accounting for up to 30 percent of a family’s daily income. The price for each of these fuels is only increasing as forest coverage is dwindling. This situation is not sustainable, and unless something changes there will not be any forests left and respiratory infections will continue to be a leading killer.

It is time for a revolution in the solid fuels sector — and that revolution is charcoal briquettes.

The Briquette Revolution

Briquettes have the potential to change the current dynamic of solid-fuel production across East Africa. Briquettes are a manufactured solid fuel formed by compacting biomass waste, often with adhesive binders that increase strength and retain shape. By transforming waste streams into a valuable fuel, briquettes unlock the true potential of waste products. In fact, existing waste residues from the agricultural industry in Kenya have the potential to satisfy more than half of the demand for solid fuel.

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Sanivation received a grant from the Great Energy Challenge, a National Geographic program sponsored by Shell. The program supports promising energy innovators

Many Kenyan entrepreneurs have noticed this remarkable opportunity, and briquette businesses have sprung up all over the country. Just like the briquettes themselves, producers come in all shapes and sizes, from small women’s collectives that repurpose municipal waste, to large-scale producers like Sanivation, GreenChar, and Kencoco who transform industrial agricultural waste streams.

After switching to briquettes, the Makomboki Tea Factory estimates it will save $300,000 per year. Another group, Takachar, is combining briquetting with microfinancing for small-scale farmers.

Opportunity For Innovation

But wait, there’s more: briquettes completely revolutionize how we think about solid fuel. For the first time in millennia there is the opportunity to optimize solid fuel products in East Africa. They can be made from a variety of waste materials, pressed into different shapes, and produced using dozens of methods. Diversity in briquette design enables integration with many end-use technologies, from improved cook stoves to industry boilers. This means producers can finally design tailored fuels for specific markets, all from waste materials.

Soon users will be able to select a fuel that meets their needs. Households will be able to cook many dishes over a stove, with a briquette that has a long burn time and low emissions. Industrial customers will be able to use a cheap briquette that won’t form slag in their boilers. Small businesses will be able to use an environmentally friendly briquette in bulk that can be easily loaded into commercial stoves.

With these developments, customers can be released from the constraints of traditional fuels. Fuel producers are adding value and meeting niche markets. The sector is on the brink of massive growth. If 40 percent of the firewood users in Sub-Saharan Africa switched to briquettes in the next five years, over two million deaths from indoor air pollution could be prevented and seven billion tons of carbon emissions could be avoided.

Fledgling Industry

In places such as Kenya and Cambodia, the processing of agricultural residues at scale remains the largest hurdle to growth. With today’s technology, entrepreneurs are unable to produce enough briquette supply to keep up with demand. Technical assistance is the key missing link.

Another challenge is the threat of dangerous knockoffs, which serve the market low-quality products. The briquette sector must protect its brand and reputation. Many producers are taking this very seriously. A cooperative in East Africa has been recently formed to establish clear and productive standards for briquettes.

Briquette pioneers stand not only to benefit from cooperatives, but also from more formalized networks that may share business models and technical solutions to spur their efforts. This important component can help entrepreneurs find external funding.

With the right support, the briquette industry will significantly improve people’s health, the environment and the economy. This is the beginning of the briquette revolution.

Photo courtesy of Sanivation
Photo courtesy of Sanivation

Andrew Foote, Sanivation, CEO and Co-founder: After working in seven different countries, Andrew became frustrated with international development and saw the light with community-led and market-driven solutions, or what he calls social enterprise. He went on to manage an impact investing program and worked at a consulting firm helping nonprofits develop performance management systems. With Sanivation he has managed 30+ person teams in urban slums and refugee camps to achieve a simple vision: a sustainable world where safe and dignified sanitation is a reality for everyone, everyday. Andrew has degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology in environmental engineering and from Emory University in cultural anthropology. He is currently recognized as a Halcyon Fellow in social entrepreneurship.

Comments

  1. Karen Berner
    United States
    September 22, 12:49 pm

    Wow.Thank you to Andrew & National Geographic for explaining the potential & significant impact that increased use of briquettes can have on the Kenyan people & the sustainability of forests. When I bought a “Christmas stocking” full of briquettes from my granddaughter, Catherine to support this project, I had no idea of the far-reaching potential impact of the briquette for the larger African population than over the small compound in which she works. Thank you to Andrew & all the workers pioneering this life-saving innovative tecnology. Karen Berner