Fresh out of college and jobless a few years ago, Dennis Wachira stumbled into a clean fuel idea in a garbage heap.
He still recalls the ugly sight and smell of used diapers and sanitary towels strewn allover. That would turn out to be his light bulb moment, enabling him to see the waste in a different light and proceeding to convert it to fuel for cook stoves.
As a Chemistry graduate from the University of Nairobi, it hit him if the components of the diapers could be chemically broken down, some sort of energy could come out.
Not only would it generate affordable and cleaner fuel but it would also ease the waste menace around neighbourhoods, through recycling.
That’s how Leafy Ke was born – a startup that converts used diapers and pads to a clean cooking gel as an alternative to smoke-emitting charcoal and kerosene among households in informal settlements.
The company last year emerged the winner in the Climate LaunchPad (CLP) competition organised by Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC), bagging a cash prize of $2,000 (Sh200,000).
The CLP competition aims to encourage innovation around cleantech, providing training bootcamps and a networking platform for startups.
Today, the 26-year old Wachira alongside his co-founders Peter Gachanja, 26, and Melvin Kizito, 25, all Chemistry graduates, are in the process of scaling up their business with installation of a production line.
That would open the doors to launch of their own line of cookstoves, specifically designed for their fuel which comes in gel and cube forms.
“At the prototype level, we made it easier for households to use our fuel in a normal kerosene stove. We didn’t want customers to incur extra costs of buying new stoves at this early stage. We wanted them to continue using their stoves that they already had while using our fuel,” Wachira said in an interview.
“As we seek financial line to go full blown commercial, we’re getting into the stage where we’ll roll out our own custom-made stoves to increase the fuel use efficiency.”
Currently, from two diapers Leafy is able to generate a litre of the fuel gel, Wachira points out. A litre costs $1.20 (Sh120).
To prepare rice for three people and warm water, for instance, all it takes is 50 grams of the fuel.
The innovator explains the waste-to-fuel process.
“We get diapers and sanitary pads from garbage collectors, clean them using detergent and high-pressure water, then chemically process them into a fuel gel.”
Thereafter, they package the fuel gel into small cans, which can be used to heat food during catering events or placed in stoves to cook food.
“Our target market comprises people who cook using firewood, charcoal and kerosene. These fuels produce a lot of soot, smoke, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The gel, on the other hand, doesn’t produce carbon monoxide and has lower emissions of carbon dioxide,” said Wachira.
The zero carbon monoxide eliminates possible deaths by suffocation inside homes with poor ventilation while the very low carbon dioxide leaves homes with a lower carbon footprint.
Wachira opens up that his visits to the countryside also fuelled his drive to find cleaner alternative cooking fuels.
“While my grandma’s meals were invariably big and hearty, I noticed she had to withstand a lot of smoke from biomass while she prepared food in the smoky kitchen,” he said.
Having started out with only $30 (Sh3,000), he would initially pay street kids to collect the diaper waste for him to carry out tests.
His aim is to provide affordable clean energy to as many low income households as possible, while slashing carbon emissions.
“I used to do the tests in the backyard of my house. The first time wasn’t successful, neither was my second time,” he said.
“I had to borrow $10 (Sh1,000) the third time before it worked.”
KCIC chief executive Edward Mungai encouraged more young people to be innovative, especially at a time when the country is experiencing high levels of unemployment while battling with the effects of climate change.