Bio-Waste Briquettes Closing The Door On Charcoal

Kennedy Odhiambo, a former researcher and co-founder of Briquette Champions Africa believes that use of charcoal briquettes as a cleaner alternative to traditional charcoal, wood fuel and kerosene will soon be the new normal among poor households. This is in light of growing environmental concerns associated with charcoal burning that is posing a threat to forest cover, besides polluting the air. Indoor pollution amid poor ventilation has recently emerged a silent death-trap inside the walls of low-income households.

His company manufactures charcoal briquetting machines in Komarock, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Unlike the traditional charcoal merchant, his machines produce “fancy charcoal” otherwise referred to as briquettes. Briquettes production involves compacting biomass waste into charcoal products in the form of solid blocks or pellets, with the advantage of emitting less smoke and being cheaper.

The choice of bio-waste used ranges from charred rice husks, coconut husks to pineapple waste and even bushes.

Driven by a burning desire to promote conservation of the country’s forests, Kennedy felt compelled to produce affordable machines in order to make them readily available to local briquette makers, especially the youth.

When more people adopt briquettes for cooking, especially in villages, peri-urban and informal settlements, less trees are felled for firewood and charcoal, thus conserving the environment. On industrial level, briquettes are cleaner, cheaper substitutes to dirty fuels like coal in heating boilers and furnaces.

Africa Sustainability Matters environmental reporter Pamela Okutoyi caught up with him for more on his business venture. Below are the excerpts:

What inspired you to venture into the business of charcoal briquettes?

When I was 10 years old, I planted a seed and within a month it blossomed into a beautiful flower. My father told me it meant a good sign and I grew up believing good things could come out of this.

A decade later in March 2018 when the Kenyan government imposed a ban on logging, sending charcoal prices through the roof, I saw an opportunity. Working as a researcher at the time, I partnered with two of my colleagues to explore other alternatives and that’s how the charcoal briquette business came to mind.

As the demand for charcoal briquettes increased over time, we opted to start making briquetting machines so as to serve a larger population and promote cleaner fuel use, besides creating jobs. I wanted to make briquettes a common consumer fuel in Africa, one that would reduce dependence on forests for charcoal/wood fuel.

Besides the briquette machines, we also develop other related equipment including simple grinding machine for crushing raw materials and a drying system that comes in handy during rainy seasons and in cold areas.

Besides the machines, do you plan on making briquettes?

Currently we are only making the machines and offering training around the same. However, as we continue to grow we are planning to start our own charcoal briquette production plant here in Nairobi.

Raw materials are easy to access countrywide, including charred dust, starch and a binder.

What are the advantages of charcoal briquettes compared to common charcoal?

Briquettes have the following advantages over other forms of charcoal:

  • Burns up to three times longer than traditional charcoal. Briquettes can burn up to 12 hours, making them more efficient.
  • Higher calorific value, meaning they have higher heat content and can be used in industries. Some industries use industrial briquettes for their boilers because of their high density and energy concentrated fuel nature. 
  • Cheaper. In Kenya, for Sh1,000-1,500 you will get 50kg worth of briquettes whereas 45kg of wood charcoal retails at around Sh2,500.
  • Briquettes are nearly smokeless. This is because the compression process fills every little tiny hole in the briquette during extruding so there is no room for internal combustion to take place.
  • Easy to make. With materials that are readily available and a minimal labor of only two people you get to manufacture the fuel.
  • Advantageous to the environment since they relieve forests of pressure to provide wood for fuel. Forests, if conserved, act as water catchment areas and habitats for flora and fauna.
Briquettes burning in a stove

How are your machines powered?

The machine can be powered by both single phase and three phase motors. So whenever we receive orders, we have to inquire about the type of electric system in the location where the machine is to be installed.

The machine has a capacity to churn out at least 250kgs/hr.

What’s the cost of the machines?

We have several lines of briquette producing merchandise. For briquette machine/ press, the electric one costs Sh75,000 while the one running on petrol goes for Sh85,000. On the other hand, the grinding machine I talked about earlier has a cost range of Sh60,000 – 70,000 while the drying system suited for cold areas costs Sh130,000.

We also offer training for free at the client’s location since the machine is delivered in person by our trainers. Delivery is also free of charge countrywide.

How are you embedding sustainable practices in your operations?

Our operations are driven and motivated by the need to preserve our natural heritage by not cutting down trees for charcoal. We are encouraging people to start making briquettes and flood the market as much as we can with it. Making charcoal briquettes a common commodity in the market through the proposition of lower price and clean fuel is the only way that we can completely eradicate wood charcoal use.

Highlight some of the challenges you face as a business in the green space

Transforming waste into wealth faces many challenges when it comes to licensing. Some of the licenses are very expensive to obtain.

Additionally, there is still competition from wood charcoal vendors since briquettes are not quite well known.

I wish I could hold briquette rallies countrywide someday to spread awareness.

Most small-holder farmers in rural areas depend on dirty fuels with negative impact on their health and productivity. How is this initiative going to help them?

Rural areas have a lot of raw materials at their disposal. Some good examples include the rice husks in Mwea and Ahero; coconut husks in the coastal region; bushes in the northern part of Kenya, all of which can be carbonized and crushed into charred dust.

This initiative can create lots of employment opportunities directly and indirectly throughout the supply chain, opening revenue streams and improving living standards.

What are your future plans?

To make sure that every home, institution, catering service providers that previously used charcoal or wood has embraced charcoal briquettes. This will be a great save both environmentally and economically.

That said, some support from the government and the private sector would be of great boost. We are currently setting up an initiative that will donate briquette machines to at least five vulnerable groups in every county to create revenue from waste biomass.

How has the Corona virus pandemic affected your business?

For the clients that we had managed to train and deliver the machines to before the pandemic got worse are doing well. The lockdown means majority of the working population is at home and need fuel to cook, boil and even warm up during this cold season.

Being a startup however, it’s a tricky situation since most of the people currently are not investing in long term business projections due to the uncertainties of the pandemic.  

What advice would you give to someone looking to venture into this kind of business?

I would tell them to come on board and be briquette champions. Together we can create a greener country.

Read also: Logging Ban Fuels Kenya’s Forest Cover Growth

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