By Peter Oliver Ochieng

The United Nations (UN) in 2015 adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in what remains a universal call to action aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet earth and ensuring that all human races enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030 –slightly less than nine years from now.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) portal, the SDGs are designed with a view of ending poverty, hunger, AIDS and discrimination against women and girls.

SDG number seven speaks on affordable and clean energy, which means that ensuring clean and cheap energy is not only vital, but it is at the center of ending poverty and protecting the planet under the same breadth.

In Kenya, wood and charcoal fuel are widely used for cooking with far reaching implications on natural resource management, energy access, climate change, public health and development, just to name but a few.

The national government, county governments, organizations and even members of groups at the village or estate level continue to join hands focused on incorporating clean energy mechanisms into day to day household and community cooking experiences.

One such group is the Namanda Pure Energy Self Help Group in Mandizini area, Bungoma County. The five member group was founded about two years ago, with a mission of producing briquettes for cooking and commercial purposes, and in return reduce the rate of cutting down of trees for firewood and charcoal fuel, said the group’s Chairperson, Rehema Riziki.

“We do not only stop at producing and selling briquettes. We also enlighten the community on dangers of persistent cutting down of trees for firewood and charcoal,” she said.

Rehema Riziki working on the briquettes

Riziki’s group uses charcoal dust as the raw material for coming up with the briquettes. After the group’s formation, members were trained by Practical Action Organization officials, arming them with the relevant skills to set the ball rolling steadily.

The Organization granted them a machine – a processor to ensure efficiency in production. The charcoal dust is collected from charcoal sellers within Bungoma County, at a cost of between Sh100 (about USD 0.9) and Sh150 (about USD 1.4) per kilogram.

“We normally move around to collect charcoal dust from charcoal sellers. Sometimes they bring them up to here because most people around are aware of our briquette making venture,” said Ramadhan Wamache, a member of the group.

Ramadhan Wamache prepares for briquette production

Currently, the group does not have an office. All the production, packaging and marketing are done at Riziki’s home.  After the collection of the charcoal dust, Wamache said they carry out sorting to remove foreign particles such as nails and sticks.

The dust is then separated into production lots. Water and molasses are then added before mixing is done. Molasses is the glue that holds the water and the dust together.

The mixture is then fed into an already running processor – which uses electricity. It takes 2-3 minutes before briquettes start coming out through an outlet on the machine. The machine can produce more than 50 kilograms of briquettes in a day, which means the group has enough stock to satisfy market needs.  The production process continues.

The briquettes are then dried in the sun for three consecutive days, before they are put up for sale. “A kilogram of briquettes goes for Sh35 (about USD 34) while a 50 kilogram sack is sold for Sh1, 500 (about USD 14),” said the Chairperson.

“Our products are affordable and economical. For example, a kilogram of briquettes are able to prepare breakfast, lunch and supper for a small family compared to a kilogram of charcoal which cannot stretch that far,” she added.

The self help group’s customers are drawn from Bungoma and beyond. Those within Bungoma normally visit Riziki’s home to make purchases, while packing is done and send to those who order through phone calls and social media channels.

Group members displaying dried up briquettes

The business is paying members of the group, if the cost of production vis-à-vis the price is anything to go by. In order to bring down the cost of production, they normally buy charcoal dust and molasses in bulk.

“We sell a 50 kilogram bag of briquettes at Sh1, 500 (about USD 14). Our rough estimates indicate that the production cost of a 50 kilogram sack is about Sh500 (about USD 4). That means we make Sh1, 000 (about USD 9) from each sack. We do not incur losses,” said Riziki.

One of the group’s loyal customers is Andrew Obadiah. He introduced briquettes into his cooking six months ago, and he is not looking back. “Briquettes are very economical compared to charcoal. For instance three to four briquettes on a normal jiko are able to prepare food,” he said.

Besides using briquettes for cooking, Obadiah orders briquettes and sells to customers in his rural area of Maliki, Bungoma. “Every week, I come here to order 100 kilograms of briquettes and supply to customers at my rural home. I buy a 100 kilogram bag at Sh3, 000 (about USD 29). I sell at Sh3, 500 (about USD 34) which earns me a profit of Sh500 (about USD 4) per sack.”

Andrew Obadiah uses briquettes for cooking

Mwatum Rashid, a resident of Oldrex in Bungoma has been using briquettes for her cooking for about a year now. “Briquettes burn for a longer period compared to charcoal. You just put a few pieces in the jiko and they are able to a cook a big chunk of food,” said Rashid who operates an eatery in the area.

She added, “I stopped using charcoal after discovering that briquettes were much better. Briquettes are seamless in cooking. They have no smoke, no dust. I buy 20 kilograms of briquettes, able to serve me for almost a week. The same quantity of charcoal cannot serve me for that number of day.”

The Chairlady cites rain as one of the major challenges they sometimes go through. “Briquettes need enough sun to dry. It becomes a challenge during rainy seasons as they cannot dry within three days,”Riziki said.

She says using briquettes for cooking is yet to be fully embraced by residents, because it is relatively a new idea in Bungoma County. “We are tackling this challenge day by day through awareness campaigns. We believe that in the long run, residents of Bungoma County and Kenya at large will settle on using briquettes for cooking.”

According to Wamache the ash drawn from cooking using briquettes can be used as insecticide against various insects that attack crops. He added that the ash can also be used as manure and to kill bad odor emanating from pit latrines.

Going forward, the group intends to start ordering for sugarcane remains from sugar millers such as Nzoia Sugar for use in producing briquettes. The aim is to stop the use of charcoal dust as it still encourages cutting down of trees for charcoal, which in turn produces charcoal dust.