Takachar turns unmanaged urban organic waste into safe, affordable, and lab-tested fuel briquettes to reduce charcoal-related deforestation.
Takachar is a waste-to-charcoal dissemination network that transforms unmanaged organic waste into clean, affordable, and eco-friendly household cooking fuel starting in Kenya.
In Kenya, charcoal is a popular cooking fuel, which contributes to deforestation. Deforestation-related greenhouse emissions are not the only concern; increasingly scarce wood supply has drastically increased the charcoal price, leading to urban energy poverty and economic duress. At the same time, much of the organic disposables are either left to rot (releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas) or set on fire (creating environmental/health hazards).
We will set up a network of local for-profit waste-to-charcoal microfranchises, each of which consists of a briquetting facility operated by a local entrepreneur, as well as an accompanying distributed network of low-cost (US$20) pyrolysis kilns tied with groups/farmers who have nearly costless access to waste (such as corn cobs/husks, rice husks, sawdust, bagasse either from farms or markets). We found that most of such dryable organic waste not currently being used. The kiln operators will be able to acquire such waste at the source, operate the pyrolysis kiln, and sell the carbonized materials to the briquetting microfranchises, who will centrally produce the briquettes for quality control and branding. We are working with the Kenyan government to set standards on production techniques and the products. Our briquettes were demonstrated at the Nairobi Trade Fair, certified by the Kenyan government, and sold to local households.
The total addressable market for charcoal is US$175 million/year in Nairobi alone. This addresses the greenhouse emissions from both unmanaged decomposing waste, as well as from the prevention of deforestation by replacing wood charcoal. The ability to sell briquettes more cheaply than wood-derived charcoal, coupled with proven success in the beachhead market will make our product attractive from other areas/countries.
Category of the action
Reducing emissions from waste management
What actions do you propose?
As mentioned above, the project already has some traction in the field: we have set up a small-scale pilot project with the Zulu Youth Group in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya in summer 2012, and the charcoal briquettes were subsequently lab-tested, exhibited at the Nairobi International Trade Fair, and certified by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture. Furthermore, the briquettes have been tested for emission safety at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the University of Nairobi. We are also setting up a partnership with ARTI-Tanzania, which already operates a successful green charcoal enterprise involving 700 farmers with a capacity of 2 tons/day of briquettes, who has agreed to train our microenterprise network in getting started with the operation.
Over the past 2 years, we have also developed and user-tested a new pyrolysis kiln design that costs US$20 to manufacture, that uses the volatile gas released from the waste itself to carbonize the waste into char, and that can be operated/repaired easily by farmers and waste groups in Kenya. Due to concerns about emissions from the pyrolysis process, our kiln was specifically designed to minimize smoke. In typical open (e.g. rural) environments where most of the organic waste is found, operating the kiln will not cause additional environmental pollution, because after all, most of the unused organic waste is currently being set on fire in the open (without the energy being captured).
The next step is to take this project beyond the pilot level. To do so, we will first implement a life-size proof-of-concept. Based on our learning from the field, the briquetting business only becomes commercializable at a minimum scale of 500 kg/day, because charcoal is a low-margin high-volume commodity in Kenya. Recognizing that creating the entire charcoal value chain (from waste sourcing to charcoal conversion to briquetting to marketing/sales) anew is rather unwieldy due to many moving parts, it is key for us to form partnerships at this stage. Specifically, we have already identified and visited a list of entrepreneurs/organizations who already do briquetting and marketing/sales well --- and there exists such groups who convert charcoal dust (from the charcoal industry, not from pyrolsis) into charcoal briquettes, but the amount of charcoal dust is generally not sufficient to meet the market needs. Based on these groups' willingness to expand their production, we will then look for the specific organic waste available in their locale, as well as mobilize the appropriate mechanism to source such waste (through skilled waste-pickers or surrounding farmers). This will then allow us to focus strictly on the charcoal conversation process in our early stages, so that we can both convert efficiently and produce high-quality charcoal dust that meets the needs of the downstream briquette producers. Running this proof-of-concept production will allow us to iterate upon this business model and make sure that it is financially viable, before we expand. We are currently in Kenya interacting with a list of promising organizations who will fit into one of the specific roles above. For example, a sampling of our current workflow is as follows: (1) We are serving as the conduit for a farmer network in Meru who can supply their carbonized husks to an existing operation in Gilgil; (2) the Gilgil operation already sells their briquettes to a list of customers (households, eco-lodges, and a temple in Nairoi) and is looking to expand its operations; (3) Takachar will provide the funding and manpower to help the Gilgil operation scale up (in terms of equipment purchases and initial start-up operation costs); (4) Takachar is working with the Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI) to define standards in briquettes and briquetting techniques, which will be applied to the Gilgil project as the first model of at-scale, sustainable, profitable green charcoal production from organic waste in Kenya; (5) while the briquettes already have some market in the Gilgil case, we are also forming a partnership with Destiny Africa, which has offered to purchase all briquettes from such groups for uniform branding and marketing in its large network of community anchor organizations, restaurants, and supermarkets. We are also working with our counterparts in Tanzania, who have also pledged enough resources to set up a proof-of-concept green charcoal enterprise in Tanga, Tanzania.
Within the next 6 months, we expect to have a full-scale, 2 tons/day production in at least Gilgil and Tanga as profitable proof-of-concept microenterprises that can be examined by potential aspiring entrepreneurs and investors for further projects. At this stage, the Climate Innovation Centre in Nairobi has offered to support/co-incubate 3 more microenterprises of this nature in other areas of Kenya using different types of organic feedstock, so that these initial microenterprises will serve as “living labs” for further development of the standardization process in partnership with KEFRI. Y Global (YMCA/YWCA) has already generously supported our initial setup, and we expect to work closely with them on incorporating youths into green charcoal activities.
Within the next 12 months, we are partnering with resource mobilizers (such as the Entrepreneurship Resource Centre, whose director is currently an involved business partner in Takachar) to set up an incubation environment where local entrepreneurs who demonstrate commitment in starting a green charcoal microenterprise can receive training and financial start-up support through microfinance partners. We are also currently in talks with Green Africa Foundation as well as World Community Students for Sustainable Development in incorporating green charcoal into one of the activities they regularly conduct within their vast network of constituent communities.
We are also actively engaged in technical improvements in the kilns by partnering with the Nairobi Fab Lab. The Fab Lab has been our long-time technical partners where our early prototypes were tested in the Kenyan setting and conditions. The Fab Lab is also well-connected with local entrepreneurs/trainers in waste management as well as various community-based organizations. The network of local entrepreneurs/trainers is important because they have already been engaged in training workshops for various groups in waste management practices (such as composting and biogas). We have already formalized our partnership with the Inventors and Innovators Association of Kenya who will carry out training of the kiln operation on Takachar’s behalf amongst the farmers and wastepicker groups, and with the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife/Giraffe Centre as a site for pyrolysis demonstration and outreach (which has already been established).
In the medium term, we envision establish a network of green charcoal microenterprises throughout Kenya on a microfranchising model. Takachar will then be both a platform/network for learning and training, as well as a provider of branded pyrolysis kilns and briquette presses which have been standardized in collaboration with KEFRI. A local entrepreneur will have access to an incubation/microfinance system to invest in such equipment, with expected return on investment within 6 months.
In the medium term, we are also designing a more efficient and robust charcoal pyrolysis design that we can start selling to the NGOs and other waste management projects at a more industrial scale (about 1 ton/day capacity or more). This design is part of the doctoral research of a current MIT student actively involved in this project, and will take 1-2 years before the first machine is implemented in the field. Once our short-term non-profit project has gained some traction and demonstrated a viable use case amongst the Kenyan waste pickers, then we will develop a more technology-driven business model which will enable us to become a for-profit entity in order to scale our impact around the world where waste management and fuel shortage are common problems.
In terms of marketing/sales, we chose Kenya as the first site of entry for our product partly because of our working relationship with local waste-pickers/farmers there through their umbrella organizations/networks (such as WIEGO/KENASVIT). We then specifically chose Nairobi to first sell the briquettes because the city’s charcoal market is mature enough to support entry of a new briquette brand. There is significant consumer demand for charcoal (sold as various “brands” with different prices depending on the quality of the wood) in urban areas such as Nairobi, with over half of the city’s households listing charcoal as their primary fuel. In contrast to rural Kenya, in Nairobi firewood is scarce, thereby making charcoal the only viable solid fuel currently. The first stage of the Takachar pilot will identify, as a “beachhead” market, the bulk consumers of charcoal. This includes restaurants as well as schools (which provides free lunches for students), through our collaboration with Destiny Africa. Once we establish a steady sale of briquettes to these bulk users, the briquettes’ success within this segment can then be used to gain buy-in with local charcoal vendors. The next stage will expand distribution by collaborating with select vendors to distribute briquettes through the existing supply chain. The urban charcoal vendors are already accustomed to selling different types/qualities of charcoal at different prices, so introducing a new type of briquettes will not be too revolutionary in their business operations. Low prices coupled with proven success in the beachhead market will make our briquettes an attractive investment for vendors, who currently charge customers high prices to recoup costs of transporting charcoal into the city.
Finally, we also realize the importance of due diligence and impact assessment. Therefore, we have partnered with Dr. Wanjiru Gichuhi of University of Nairobi's Institute for Population Studies in order to facilitate community interviews and user feedback surveys. We have already collaborated on a study/interview protocol on the assessment of charcoal production at the youth group level, and this protocol has been approved by Kenya's National Council of Science and Technology (Study No. 9429). As we scale up, we will also expand the impact assessment to make sure that our project is delivering the optimal social and environmental benefit.
Who will take these actions?
Takachar is currently borne out as a collaboration amongst The Taka Group, Inc. (a Massachusetts-based non-profit that fosters waste sector enterprises), Entrepreneurs Resource Centre (a network of business incubators in various Kenyan cities), Y Global, Kenya Forest Research Institute, and Destiny Africa, and as such its structure in Kenya will be a limited liability partnership. Its steering committee involves the following individuals:
Kevin Kung is an MIT Ph.D. student in Biological Engineering and President of The Taka Group, Inc. He has worked for seven years on various low-cost community-based projects in the developing world, including rural electrification in Peru, water filtration in Uganda, and stabilized construction blocks in Ghana. His currently doctoral thesis focuses on the conversion of solid waste into solid fuel in the context of India.
Gideon Mandara is a development entrepreneur who has had 20 years of experience implementing low-cost technologies for social good in Kenya and Tanzania. He has worked with organizations such as USAID, UNICEF, Tanzania Financial Sector Deepening Trust, and University of Dar es Salaam. He is the director of Entrepreneurs Resource Centre in Kenya, which has set up more than 10 incubators in major Kenyan cities to incubate microenterprises, as well as the director of the Centre for Sustainable Development Initiatives.
Nicholas Simani (M.A. Economics) s a development economist and environment consultant who has had 20 years of experience in Kenya, serving in various roles on organizations such as the Leadership Foundation of Kenya. He is the Board Chairman of Economic Projects Trust Fund in Kenya that specializes in incubating micro-enterprises. He is the owner of Impact Environmental Consultants.
Where will these actions be taken?
Solid fuel such as charcoal is used by about 2 billion people worldwide, and this project has high applicability in various countries such as Central/South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. We specifically selected Kenya because it is a country where the environmental and social consequences for using charcoal as a cooking fuel is particularly severe. Kenyan households spend about US$1 billion/year on charcoal. The official outlawing of wood charcoal in the country has led to inflated prices to satisfy the growing demand, leading to severe urban energy poverty. While the first briquette operation will be likely located in Gilgil, we are seeking to establish our first briquette sales channel, in collaboration with Destiny Africa, in Nairobi, where the demand for charcoal is estimated to be about 700 tons/day. If successful, we will gradually expand to other cities around Kenya, and then the neighboring countries in East Africa (such as Uganda and Tanzania) facing similar problems.
What are other key benefits?
(1) Waste management: Currently organic waste in Nairobi and many other cities is not properly managed. Our solution makes efficient use of organic waste because (i) charcoal pyrolysis has a much shorter turnover time than composting, and (ii) charcoal is in extremely high demand in urban areas where the organic waste originates, thereby foregoing the need for long-distance transport. By 2014, we aim to manage about 20 tons/week of otherwise unmanaged organic waste.
(2) Income generation: Our charcoal production provides income/jobs in urban areas. The profit generated from charcoal-making can raise the average income of a group member by 46%.
(3) Alleviation of urban energy poverty: Charcoal supply from rural Kenya is becoming scarce, so the production of charcoal from the urban waste stream can supplement this supply and thus alleviate this charcoal bottleneck. This can in turn lessen the economic burden on the urban household (therefore allowing them to cook 3 meals/day).
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
By managing organic waste, we avoid methane emissions from decomposition; by substituting wood charcoal with our briquettes, we save trees and avoid the long-distance transportation of wood charcoal. By 2014, when our waste management reaches 7000 houses, the equivalent greenhouse CO2 saving will be 2700 tons/year. Concomitantly, we will have saved 1000 trees (approx. 1100 tons of CO2). Emissions from transportation are orders of magnitude smaller, and thus ignored. As we expand in the next 5 years, the impact can increase by 20 times.
To assess emission reduction from saving forests, we have partnered with the Rumuruti Forest Association, which performs long-term surveillance in the Rumuruti Forest. Our pilot charcoal project was introduced in the Rumuruti area in January and is now rapidly expanding, so we can compare future forestation data with historical trends to quantify the amount of forest saved.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The overall goal within the next year is to prove the economic viability of charcoal production, and then to launch the scale-up of the charcoal project in Nairobi, Kenya. The breakdown of the budget spending within the next year is listed as follows:
Roundtrip airfare to Kenya (1 person): $2000
Local transportation: $1000
Local accommodation (4 months): $3000
Initial seed fund for a batch of 100 kilns for scale up: $2500
Local translators (90 days): $1000
Local community facilitators (75 days): $1000
Community training sessions (materials and labor): $3000
Capital cost for scaling up an existing briquetting project in Gilgil (purchase of a 3HP electric press and a large drying rack): $2500
We have either already obtained or are actively seeking to obtain other sources of funding to support our operations in the next 12 months.
Summer 2013 will serve as an occasion for us to implement a medium-scale proof-of-concept and make further iterations as necessary. Within the next 12 months, we will be working within Nairobi, gradually expanding to 10 groups through regular workshops given by Kenyan partners, thereby operating as a limited liability partnership in order to get to scale as much as possible. We view our work in there as the first project that can be scaled to other areas of Kenya and beyond at the scale to support local microentrepreneurs and networks of farmers/groups who live near waste. Within three years of operation, we aim to have operations in three cities.
In the medium term, once we have demonstrated our pilot projects to be profitable and our technology to be successful, we will be scaling effectively through a technology-driven approach together with a microfranchising model. We will specifically target waste management projects in peri-urban farmlands, agricultural processing mills, and medium/small towns where it is not cost-effective to set up larger-scale municipal-wide waste-to-energy (WTE) plants such as incineration or bio-digestion. We are developing a larger-scale patentable technology that will allow us to enter into this more industrially oriented market with prior proven experience at a smaller community scale as well as intellectual protection.
One area that we are also exploring is the use of a mobile waste-trading platform to both enhance waste collection and recycling, but also to provide a much better resolved view of the dynamics of informal waste management which has not been mapped before. This is an initiative run by another member of The Taka Group, Inc. apart and independent from the Takachar initiative, though there are clear synergistic points. As Takachar expands to involve many more groups in both the waste collection and the production/sales of the briquettes, this tool for spatial and temporal coordination will become a major asset for the waste-pickers who work with us.
Bagramov, Gleb. Economy of converting wood to biocoal. 2010.
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. Global strategic workshop for waste pickers. 2012.
GVEP International. Kenya briquette industry study. 2010.
Scheinberg, Anne. Informal sector integration and high performance recycling. 2012.