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Meet the women turning porridge into energy-saving briquettes

By Annonciata Byukusenge

Pamela Awino and Phelisters Ombura get busy during the briquette making process. Photo/ Faith Walucho

In the busy Nyalenda slums of Kisumu City, elderly women are kneeling on a white gunny bag, spreading some black substance.

Operating under United Destiny Shapers (UDS), a community-based organisation, the women are focused on making briquettes, an alternative source of clean and safe energy.

The group comprising of 25 women and five men has turned the activity into their livelihood after a majority lost their sources of income in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Five years ago, Practical Action, an international organisation, trained the group on various clean energy approaches with a broader goal of conserving the environment.

“The idea of briquette making started a long time ago. Each of us was individually making the products on their own for their domestic use,’ said Pamela Awino, who chairs the group.

Initially, the organisation had only 17 members and started off its operation with donated briquette moulding machines.

To make the briquette, the women use charcoal dust, that is sieved and mixed with cassava porridge.

“We normally sieve the charcoal dust so as to get the smooth powder from large particles, which we mix with the sawdust. We again mix the two with cassava porridge so that it is a sticky mixture,” explained Phelisters Ombura, one of the members.

The work is enhanced by the readily available raw materials where dust is collected from charcoal sellers and sawdust from carpenters. Elsewhere, cassava is bought from local markets.

The cassava porridge acts as a glue that binds the mixture together, unlike water which causes cracks hence breaking. The mixture is fed into the machine before being cut into desirable sizes.

The already made briquettes are put in the sun to dry for three days before selling to clients.

The group members say briquettes as a source of fuel are cheaper than charcoal; for instance,5kg of briquettes costs Sh250 (around $2.5) compared to 5kg of charcoal, which costs Sh500 (around $5).

“Many people still don’t know the importance of briquettes, so we urge them to embrace this energy source because it’s clean, safe, no smoke while cooking, lasts longer, and you won’t get dirty when you touch them,’ said Awino.

According to Awino, briquettes are three times more convenient compared to charcoal. Lack of marketing channels and inadequate drying machines remains one of their biggest challenges.

“If we could also get a machine used to grind charcoal dust into small particles, we would be so glad,’ she added.

The ever increasing price of charcoal dust and sawdust is also emerging as a new challenge, with the group members noting that a 40 sack of sawdust and charcoal dust now costs Sh400 ($4) from Sh200 ($2) and Sh700 ($7) from Sh250 respectively.

They are anticipating expanding the project to meet the needs of their clients, who are majorly the locals and the neighbouring restaurants.

“This venture helps us to cater for the bills of our households. We come from humble backgrounds, and most of us are sole breadwinners for our families. Some members here are single mothers and widows, so the money we get from this helps us greatly,’ said Awino.

They are also planning to establish their website to make marketing easier and have their products certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards to venture into traditional markets like supermarkets.

Environment experts have always pointed out that using briquettes for cooking is safer than charcoal wood by minimising the rate of deforestation.

According to UNEP, charcoal burning emits a lot of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Carbon monoxide is one of the greenhouse gases contributing to the global warming phenomenon. It also results in respiratory complications which can be catastrophic in the long run.

Clean and affordable energy is goal number seven of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be achieved by the year 2030. In that regard, a third of the population in the world still uses dangerous and inefficient energy cooking systems.

Mr Laban Okeyo, the acting director in charge of renewable energy in the Department of Energy and Industry county government of Kisumu, has noted that clean energy usage is fairly well, and half of the population can access it.

Over-reliance on firewood

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2019 census report,49.6 per cent of the population in Kisumu County uses firewood for cooking while 18.6 per cent use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), 22.2 per cent use charcoal, 7.8 per cent use paraffin,0.9 per cent use electricity, 0.6 per cent use biogas and 0.2 per cent use solar.

Elsewhere, 78.6 per cent of households use unclean fuel for cooking that is a combination of charcoal, firewood and paraffin, while 21.1 per cent use LPG, electricity, briquettes and other forms.

The report further shows that 78.8 per cent of households use clean energy for lighting,52.6 per cent for lighting and 26.2 per cent use solar, while 21.2 per cent use unclean sources of energy for lighting.

Mr Okeyo has pointed out that poverty is a contributing factor for households in Kisumu (78.6 per cent) to use unclean energy for cooking.

“Not everyone can afford LPG for example. Any person could wish to use clean energy, but affordability is an issue, so poverty is a hindrance,” he said.

Also, some technologies are not available for use for example; he has pointed out “biogas is a new thing to many people”.

The high cost of electricity has made many people shy away from using and lastly, the culture where people have a perception that particular food can only be cooked with firewood and not LPG.

According to Mr Okeyo, although the county government has invested in promoting and adopting clean energy; there are programmes and activities geared towards the initiative.

“For instance, at the community level, there’s a programme dubbed Operation Nyangile (paraffin tin lamp) out. There are a lot of people who still use paraffin lamps for lighting their houses, so we create awareness about various clean technology for lighting and we focus on solar energy. We go to the community with solar kits, lamps and lanterns, educate them and give them samples. We normally focus on those areas that are not connected to the electricity and help the vulnerable in the community,” said Okeyo.

This article is part of the African Women in Media (AWiM)/UNEP Africa Environment Journalism Programme.

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WanaData is a Pan-African network of female journalists, data scientists and techies working on changing the digital media landscape by producing and promoting data-driven news while applying digital technologies in their storytelling.

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