By Mary Hearty

Today’s International Day of Rural Womenthemed “Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All”, puts a spotlight on the critical role rural women play in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating poverty, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.

This international day recognizes Chebet Lesan’s initiative of establishing her own eco-company that helps improve the lives of rural women by producing affordable, clean, safe and eco-friendly charcoal briquettes for cooking. The charcoal briquettes help reduce air pollution as well as deforestation as they are created from agricultural wastes.

Chebet at the site holding the briquettes which they produce

After graduating from Nairobi University with a degree in international development design, she received an invitation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to be part of their D-lab program, where promising design students from around the world came together in Tanzania to develop a solution to a local problem using local materials.

According to Chebet, this was a life-changing program for her as she remembered her grandmother‘s small hut, constantly filled with smoke from cooking.  The young and vibrant woman decided her goal was to improve women’s lives by creating something that would help them.

Indoor air pollution from the toxic fumes of charcoal has a devastating impact on the respiratory health of women. The daily smoke intake of women, like Chebet’s grandmother, equals the inhalation of 40 cigarettes and is linked to acute lower respiratory infections and many other diseases. According to the World Health Organization, this result in the deaths of 4 million women annually, more than TB, HIV and malaria combined.

But it’s not just about women. In Kenya, over 80% of the population uses firewood and wood-derived charcoal for cooking. This is one of the key reasons for deforestation, leaving the country with just 7.4% forest cover.

Deforestation is costing the Kenyan economy millions of dollars each year and increases the water shortage risk. Chebet wanted to design something that would make a difference to the lives of women and to the country’s forests.

Back in Kenya, with funding and coaching from MIT, she set up a company called Bright Green to develop machines that take farm waste, such as the remains of maize stalks or leftovers from sugar cane, coffee husks, macadamia nuts and flour waste, and turn them into eco-friendly charcoal briquettes for cooking.

After Chebet started producing these briquettes, which have high heat value and emit no smoke, she received interest from hotels and restaurants eager to buy them. But her aim was to make a difference in the lives of women from low-income communities. She wanted a social impact.

Again, MIT stepped in to help her find a way to reach the poorest of the poor. She approached 40 women who were running kiosks in local markets and convinced them to work with her.

Chebet being awarded by the queen

She organized training sessions with both men and women, explaining to them the product and the money they could make by selling it. She also understood that she had to rebrand her product packaging to make it look more refined. Her sellers now dressed in fancy aprons brandishing the name of the product, Moto Briquettes. And at 50 Kenyan shillings for one kilo, her product was half the cost of charcoal.

“At the moment, 30% of Bright Green Renewable Energy’s products are sold to the women. Of course, we would make more money by concentrating on big businesses, but that would be beside the point,” says Chebet.

“Selling 70% to hotels and restaurants is what allows us the profit necessary to sell to the kiosks, where my margin is much lower. But that’s where my heart lies, in improving the lives of these customers.”

Transforming agricultural waste into clean energy is one vital approach to restoring ecosystems as it allows forests and woodlands to recover.

“The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration has started, and by supporting the achievement of ambitious plans for both restoration and conservation of forests in developing countries, UN-REDD aims to play its part in making the decade a success, “says Lera Miles, Principal Technical Specialist at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Chebet has also received the Queen’s Young Leaders Awards from Queen Elisabeth 2 at Buckingham Palace in 2017; previously, she had been awarded by President Obama to take part in the Young African Leaders Initiative Fellowship. And later, she was chosen as one of three African finalists for the Cartier Women’s Initiative.