Smokeless Biofuel Saves Lives in Africa

(3BL Media and Just Means) - When I make dinner tonight, I’ll walk over to my stove, turn a few knobs and be eating in twenty minutes or less. Easy, clean, safe and cheap. However, those four adjectives do not describe the way most people, women and children in particular, in developing nations experience cooking. In fact, traditional cooking methods—open fires of wood and chemically based charcoals—have been deemed “the silent killer.” According to the World Health Organization, more people in the developing world die each year from illness caused by smoke inhalation than malaria, HIV and tuberculosis combined.   

Tom Osborn, the Founder of GreenChar, a Kenyan-based social enterprise which provides environmentally and people-friendly cooking solutions, seeks to change this. He knows the health risks of cooking in rural Kenya first-hand. It was his job as a kid to help his mom light the open wood or charcoal fire four times a day before his mom cooked over it.

“Many victims don’t know it’s the smoke causing their infections. They don’t attribute their health problems to it.  At GreenChar we are raising awareness in focus groups with women. 340 women meet once a week to discuss the health risks. Some of them understand the risks as they cook and some don’t think it’s a big problem,” said Osborn.

Osborn, along with classmates Brian Kirotich and Ian Oluoch, developed a smokeless briquette made entirely from sugar cane leaves, cassava peelings and other agricultural waste. The GreenChar team worked with PhD student, Kevin Kung, a Fellow of the Waste Innovations Group as part of MIT’s D Lab, to streamline the production process.

“We worked with our science teachers and with Kevin from MIT. We knew there were similar briquettes in India made from local, farm waste. We figured out a chemical process to convert the agricultural waste so that it could be burnt and we fixed the model so that it could work in rural Kenya,” explained Osborn.

Located right next door to a sugar cane factory, GreenChar collects their excess leaves. To supplement this supply, they pay local farmers to drop off their waste, five dollars per ton of leaves.

“Since it began in 1986, the local, sugar cane factory has never had a way of getting rid of their waste. They would put the leaves into big mountains to rot. We use this biomass to create briquettes which are non-toxic, energy efficient and prevent deforestation” said Osborn.

Currently, GreenChar has more demand for their briquettes than capacity and is crowdfunding $20,000 through Indiegogo in order to build a larger factory and expand operations. They have plans to develop an energy efficient cook stove, a mosquito repellant briquette, and to market their products through microfinance projects. GreenChar knows its biggest market is women, and they see the company as a way to both protect women’s health and financially empower them. Osborn told me about Lynnet, a woman from his home village who is now a GreenChar employee.

“Lynnet used to make charcoal from trees to support her family. We hired her to make GreenChar briquettes. And, after six months her monthly income has increased by 60%. She has convinced ten other families to start using it too,” said Osborn.

What began as a science fair project in high school, has developed into a thriving company. In less than a year, GreenChar has received partnership and support from MIT, the MasterCard Foundation and Echoing Green. Osborn was recently nominated for the Anzisha Prize, Africa’s premier, young entrepreneur award.

GreenChar’s briquettes are unprecedented for cooking methods in rural Kenya. Support their Indiegogo campaign today and help them prevent unnecessary deaths and deforestation.

Sources: GreenChar, World Health Organization