The Need vs The Cure - Unlearning Harmful Habits To Save Our Forest (Blue Luxury Investments)
By: James Nyamai, founder of BioAfriq Energy (Blue Luxury Investments Portfolio Company)
It all started when I visited my grandmother in 2016 in Mbooni, Makueni County, Kenya. It was a place we used to go when we were growing up during the December holidays with our parents. It was thick with forest cover and very tall trees and we used to go and play there and enjoy the cool fresh air, shake the trees and feel good as we saw them dance up in the sky. I had not set foot in Mbooni for three years as our grandmother used to frequent Nairobi often for medical checkup so we used to stay with her for a few weeks before she went back. In early 2016 I decided to go pay her a surprise visit and spend a week with her and in my mind I thought I would go walk through the thick forest, enjoy the cool fresh air and see the same trees dancing in the sky. When I arrived I was shocked to see the thick forest disappearing with so many trees felled.
As I drove towards my grandmother’s house so many questions began ringing in my mind: why would they cut so many trees within a short period? I though there were forest guards here, why would they allow this to happen to such a beautiful forest? When I got to my grandmother’s house and after pleasantries, I asked her about the forest and why trees were being cut. She told me that people in the area had resorted to burning charcoal as a source of income and so most of the trees have been felled to burn charcoal and as fire wood. I asked her why the forest department that is meant to protect the forests was allowing this and she told me that in most cases, the people there colluded with the officers and others to cut the trees at night and ferry them to their houses. I felt so bad that this was happening at a time when the world was focused on preserving forests and decided to take a walk through the forest and possibly talk to some people to get some more information. I met some young men (in their early twenties) in the forest who were grazing and I started a chat with them (in my mother tongue).
They told me that its true people have been burning charcoal a lot in the area and that the charcoal is mainly bought and transported to Nairobi. They also told me that quite a large number of trees have also been a source of firewood for many schools in the region especially boarding schools. I also came across a home that had a kiln outside for burning charcoal and I could see smoke coming out of the kiln but there was nobody to talk to. Some villagers around there told me that if I want charcoal they can organize for me as the area is full of so many charcoal dens that even if I wanted a lorry of charcoal I cannot fail to get in a day.
I felt saddened to see this happen and I decided to find out more about the schools as it seemed most people talked about fire wood in schools, so much so that those who had tenders to supply fire wood in schools were making a lot of money selling large quantities to boarding schools. After the visit on my way back I decided to use a different route that connected to another area I knew to have thick forest cover and to my surprise when I got there I came across huge chunks of firewood being sold along the road. I stopped by to ask about this and one lady showed me how they measure the fire wood. She added that they sell to people with tenders for schools especially boarding schools for cooking meals. This is what made me start research on fuels used in institutions to try and find an alternative fuel that could ease the pressure on the forest covers that I cherished so much.
I started MBA in Global Business Sustainability – Social Entrepreneurship Tract, in August 2016 offered by E4Impact Foundation through Tangaza University in Kenya and decided to pursue my business idea on providing affordable fuels to schools. By then I had done a lot of research on the different types of fuels that could be made available including pellets and briquettes together with their advantages and disadvantages and decided to pursue pellets. The main challenge was the availability of institutional cook stoves that would be compatible with the pellets to offer maximum efficiency and control to the user. During my MBA, Tangaza University and E4Impact Foundation introduced me to Miller Center (of Santa Clara University) who introduced me to a company that had the institutional cook stoves suitable for pellets and had all the pellet technology that I needed to bring my idea to reality. The cook stove was patented and had been very successful in India. The three partners helped me in negotiating a franchise that would be the first one in Africa and more specifically East Africa. Miller Center went to an extent of offering me 50% scholarship for my masters to pursue this idea as it was in line with conservation of the environment.
In 2017, I booked appointments with several school heads in the region who also referred me to their fellow school heads. In order to get a realistic picture of the exact situation and in a quest to get firsthand information from the school administration, I decided to use direct interviews and observations. I was granted permission to visit their kitchens and see the kind of cook stoves that were being used to prepare meals for the students. I visited some of the major schools in Machakos and Makueni counties in Kenya and several organizations in Kenya that were concerned with the environment and clean cooking in Kenya to get information from them. I extended the study to hotels and restaurants and university cafeterias to see if the solution was also applicable to them and the response was very positive especially due to the cost saving factor.
Most of these institutions were very excited about the possibility of an alternative solution to the problem of deforestation because they were already educating the students on conservation of the environment in some of their courses. Despite this, they were still using fire wood to prepare student meals. The workers in the kitchen complained about the soot and inhaling smoke most of the day, which was unhealthy for them. The sad part is that some had already accustomed to being subjected every day to this. Surprisingly, most of them were unaware of the dangers of this smoke even admitting that they had grown up burning charcoal and firewood in their family kitchens. When I mentioned that there was a smokeless solution to cooking, they were very excited and looked forward to using it.
The community members I engaged with stated that the depletion of the forest was making the bushes in the forest disappear as well, yet these bushes were a grazing ground for their animals. They were expressed excitement in our new solution because they knew that people would stop cutting down trees and they would be able to rehabilitate their grazing grounds. Other members welcomed the idea because they saw an employment opportunity in selling pellets over wood and charcoal burning.
During the Environmental Impact Assessment, the community near the proposed production site was again engaged to get their feedback on the innovation. They seemed excited and pleased that they would be able to have affordable clean fuel and possibly improve their income through employment or supply of biomass to company. This led to the formation of BioAfriq Energy Limited to manufacture affordable and clean biomass pellets and to supply pellet fired institutional cook stoves to learning and catering institutions.
The information collected was relevant to know if the technology was needed and how the community would react to it. It has also helped shape our marketing strategies and target customers and also it is through this information that I was able to source for the right solution to the current existing challenges. With the current ban by the government on charcoal burning and logging, there is a need to provide a fast solution to these institutions as the price of fire wood has doubled.