The Little Kiosks That Could

By Betsy Teutsch

Sanga Moses’ ticket out of rural Uganda was education. As an accountant at a large Kampala bank, Moses was able send money home. On a return visit to his village, he was distressed to see his kid sister coming round the bend, loaded down with firewood. It was pointless for him to pay for her schooling, she tearfully told him, because she missed too many days collecting firewood to keep up with her lessons.

Moses recalled he collected firewood in his youth, too, but a decade earlier trees had been more plentiful and closer to the village. Widespread deforestation had turned fuel-gathering into a full-day task. Moses devoted himself then and there to finding a sustainable solution.

Researching fuel alternatives, Moses zeroed in on biochar-based briquettes. Standard charcoal is made by carbonizing wood in kilns. Biochar uses the same process, carbonization, but its raw products are agriculture waste, sparing trees. Formerly farmers burned crop residue just to get rid of it. For making biochar briquettes, this waste is carbonized in repurposed oil drums.

Biochar briquettes offer end-users many advantages:

  • Money pocketed, costing 20 percent less than wood-carbonized charcoal
  • Smoke-free burning, making cooking healthier and more pleasant than over wood or charcoal
  • Long-lasting flame, designed for local stoves
  • Women spend less time and effort spent scrubbing pots (because it burns so clean)
  • Available in small quantities, suited to low-income customers
  • Eliminates both the time and physical stress of wood gathering, helping girls stay in school

Eco-Fuel Africa, the business Moses has built, features an integrated supply chain from field to kiosk.

  • Biochar is sourced from a network of local farmers who create it from crop waste in specialized drums, providing farmers with income. The farmers retain some of the biochar to use on their farm to enrich depleted soils. 
  • Eco-Fuel Africa employees mix the biochar with other ingredients in the company’s hydraulic presses. The presses were designed for off-grid settings and require no electricity.
  • Briquettes are delivered by teenagers on bicycles, providing yet more employment
  • Branded kiosks are staffed by village womentypically divorcees, single mothers, and widowsrecruited by Eco-Fuel Africa to sell the briquettes and whatever additional sundries they choose
  • Promoting habitat restoration, Eco-Fuel Africa has planted more than 150,000 trees by distributing seedlings to schools and community groups

Eco-Fuel Africa has expanded by setting up franchises. Theirs is a replicable, scalable business model providing employment along with environmental benefit. Fuel is a daily necessity, there is an abundance of agricultural waste in Uganda, and forests across the country are under stress.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/04/the-little-kiosks-that-could/359998/