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Kibera women produce cheaper, cleaner fuel

NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 7 – As many Kenyan families continue to shoulder the burden of exorbitant energy prices, a group of women in Nairobi’s Kibera slum have mastered a technology that enables them to produce cheaper and cleaner fuel.

Through the fuel briquette technology, the women in Gatwikira, manually mix charcoal dust with soil and water to make briquettes, each of which burns for between three and four hours.

Festa Nasimiyu says that through the sale of the briquettes at Sh2 each, she and many other women involved in the project are able to generate incomes that support their families.

“This business is good because through it, I am able to take care of my children.  I am comfortably able to buy them pencils and books that are needed in school and there is no day they have been sent home from school for lack of school fees,” she says proudly.

The charcoal dust is sourced from charcoal dealers at an average price of Sh100 per a 90 kilogram sack, sieved to remove big particles after which it is mixed with fine and readily available soil.

The ingredients are mixed at a ratio of 4:1 meaning that four parts of charcoal dust are blended with one part of soil.

Ideally, this fuel briquettes making is done using a relatively pricey machine called a presser but in Gatwikira, the women have learnt the art of improvising and use 500 grams cooking fat tins to make theirs.

“I like to make my mixture at night such that in the morning when I wake up, I just divide it into smaller sizes and put it in tins and after that I arrange them outside so that they can dry.  In a day, I can mix as much as two sacks which translate to hundreds of briquettes,” says Jacinta Chir.

The production of these briquettes, which in Kibera are popularly known as ‘mawe’ (stones) is relatively cheap when compared to charcoal which although is used as  a source of cooking energy, is way above the reach of many poor households.

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For instance, charcoal is sold in tins where a five-litre gallon retails at Sh40 and which is not even enough to cook two meals for the average family. The other alternative is that of kerosene, which is used for both lighting and cooking and which is currently selling at Sh88.96 per litre in Nairobi.

In the informal settlement areas, it is sold in smaller quantities of say Sh10, or Sh20 depending on how much money a customer has but this again is not enough for preparing more than one meal.

Although the technology is not new to some of these community groups, some of which have been using it for close to three decades, Mary Njenga, PhD student on Environmental Science at the Department of Land Resource Management and Agricultural Technology University of Nairobi and World Agroforestry Centre has been researching on it to determine the carbon dioxide and monoxide levels in the briquettes.

Given that a majority of the households in Gatwikira are involved in the briquette production and that about 70 percent of the area residents use them, she says it is one of those activities that are creating green jobs in Nairobi.

She is however convinced that if adopted on a large scale, it can be a great contributor to sustainable cities. This is particularly because although the ingredients in use in this slum are largely charcoal dust and soil, fuel briquettes can be made from any agricultural and commercial wastes such as weeds, leaves, sawdust, rice husks and scrap paper.

It is not lost to her that the technology at some point involves the cutting of trees to produce for instance charcoal dust and sawdust which is why she argues for the adoption of this technology by many more people.

Her argument is that a tree that weighs 3,000 kilograms for instance produces 1,000 kilograms of charcoal, 10 percent of which ends up being waste in form of charcoal dust.

“Based on this, we can say that if this kind of technology is adopted by so many people, you will find that if we recover the dust from the wood charcoal value chain, then we would extend the value of the tree.  At the end of the day, we will be able to save the number of trees that are being cut down to meet the demand for charcoal,” she opines.

Further, she reckons that a lot of sawdust is being wasted in the country which can be put to productive use.

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For example, about 230,000 tonnes of sawdust is produced in the timber mills every year and if it’s recovered and processed, it can also significantly reduce the number of trees that have to be felled for wood fuel.

The multiplier effect would be that the country’s water catchment areas such as Mau Forest would be well conserved as so would the biodiversity and generally help to mitigate climate change.

However, it is also her opinion that this technology needs to be linked to agro-forestry where the communities are encouraged to grow trees and use the branches for charcoal production.

In her quest to help develop an alternative source of energy with minimal harmful gases, Ms Njenga is still carrying out research to improve the energy efficiency of the current briquettes and ones that can compete with charcoal and wood which are used in about 70 percent of Kenyan households for cooking.

“We need to do some more work especially on the sawdust fuel briquettes because they have a lot of volatile matter when they are burnt for cooking. In my PhD, I have set up experiments to work out what can be done so that we can reduce the particulate matter. I am sure by May next year I will be able to come up with something that will give us a better product,” the student says of her resolve.

As the researcher continues with her experiments however, women like Ms Nasimiyu and Ms Chir are happy that they don’t have to entirely depend on their husbands for their families’ upkeep; that they too can contribute to the development of their households.

The challenge for them now is to look for customers who can buy their products, and by extension enable them to knowingly or otherwise play their part in reducing deforestation in the country and help mitigate climate change.

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