A New Fuel Source Can Power Kenya’s Industries While Saving Forests. So Why Isn’t it Taking Off?
Worls Resources Institute - Kenya’s forests are the country’s lifeblood. But they’re also its fuel source.
Firewood is the main source for powering industries and cooking meals. With demand for energy increasing, forests are feeling the strain—the country has lost more than 9 percent of its trees over the last 18 years.
But a handful of entrepreneurs are working to help power Kenya without contributing to deforestation. Biomass briquettes, made by compacting dry organic waste like sawdust and sugarcane stalks into solid blocks, have a high calorific value: Consumers can generate the heat they need with smaller amounts of briquettes than firewood. And better yet, briquettes don’t require cutting pristine forests.
Kenyan Entrepreneurs Explore a New Opportunity
Kenyan entrepreneurs from all walks of life are starting up biomass briquette companies, including three incubated at the Kenya Climate Innovation Center. Festus Ngugi, a sprightly 58-year old retired government executive, founded Kings BioFuel by putting his “retirement eggs in one basket.” Kenneth Kamau, a practicing advocate of the Kenyan High Court and author of a crime thriller, has invested his earnings into founding Olkaria Bio. Jane Lenny returned from Dubai, where she worked in a media production house, to start LeJan Energy from her courtyard, even as she was nursing her six-month-old baby.
Kamau was drawn into the business because he was inspired by his father’s participation in the Green Belt Movement, led by the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. “Why chop, chop, chop?” Kamau is fond of saying. On the other hand, Ngugi and Lenny were drawn to the business opportunity before they realized that it could help solve an environmental problem.
Some of Kenya’s Biggest Firewood Users Are Changing
Tea factories and schools have historically been two of Kenya’s biggest institutional firewood users. They are starting to shift to briquettes, thanks in part to the emergence of clean energy entrepreneurs.
Kenya is one of the world’s largest exporters of black tea, with the trade accounting for 26 percent of national export earnings. Kenya’s tea factories often burn firewood to dry and process tea. A typical tea factory can consume up to 60,000 trees in a year.
Kenyan educational institutions use firewood to cook meals. Each of the country’s roughly 20,000 schools may be responsible for the clearing of 56 acres of forest every year, according to estimates by Nature Kenya.
Tea companies and schools are switching from firewood to briquettes not only for environmental reasons. Using briquettes is cheaper because a smaller quantity is needed.
Briquettes are flying off the shelves—so much so that entrepreneurs are struggling to keep up. On one summer day, Ngugi received an order of 100 tons of briquettes, but could only supply 30 because he did not have enough stock of dry raw material that he could process. Kamau said he sometimes does not pick up the phone because he is embarrassed to tell potential customers that he does not have enough stock. Lenny said she has enquiries for close to 5,000 tons per month that she cannot fulfill.