Sanga Moses is on a Crusade

June 25, 2017 |

On 15th January, 2009, Sanga Moses travelled to his village in Uganda, in East Africa, to visit his mother.  It was a day that would change his life.

On his way home, he met his 12 year old sister carrying a bundle of firewood on her head. When she saw him, she started crying. She told him that she had missed school that day, because she had travelled for 10 kilometers to buy firewood for the family.

His sister is not alone. She is just one of millions of poor girls in Africa who have to miss school and travel for long distances to help their families find firewood. It is a chore which is often assigned to young girls, and as Uganda’s population increases and the demand for firewood increases, the bundles are getting farther and farther away.

As Sanga Moses reflected, “This is happening because of unsustainable deforestation. Africa is losing over 4 million hectares of forests every year. At this rate, Africa will have no forests left by 2052.”

It’s true. Uganda is losing more than 86,000 hectares of forest cover each year, says this report. And has declined from 5 million hectares of forest in 1990 to around 3 million today. Meanwhile the population grows at more than 3 percent per year. We’ve done so much to foster Africa’s ability to keep children alive — but what about cooking fuel?

An epidemic of violence

And this leads to the saddest epidemic in all of Africa, which is sexual violence against young girls. This study of sexually active primary school girls in Uganda found that 49 percent had been forced to have sexual intercourse.

49 percent. Primary school girls.

Far from every sexual assault is carried out by strangers — too often, it is a relative or neighbor. The social price is high. Depression, aggression, disobedience, nightmares, physical health complaints and poor school performance.

And the search for firewood is a part of the problem. Especially in Uganda because of the soaring population. Uganda had 7 million people when it achieved independence in 1962, and has 40 million today. Firewood is the fuel of choice because it is affordable, and traditional.

The business

Sanga decided to do something about it, and formed a social enterprise called Eco-Fuel Africa in June 2010 to make biochar from agricultural waste as an alternative to wood. He started with $500, passion and determination and not much else.

“It’s harder to find wood. Many would rather use wood than any other fuel source, but the forests are all gone, and many people are struggling to buy fuel. So we have farmers who have many kilns, as many as 10 using their own waste biomass, and also aggregating from the neighbors,” Moses said. The farmer goes through 100 kilos to make 15 kilos of charcoal, and can use up to 7500 kilos of biomass per kiln per day to make up to one tonne of raw charcoal, which Eco-fuel then converts into briquettes.

The business model is straightforward. Farmers sell for 6 cents a kilo to EcoFuel, which sells to its distributors at 14 cents a kilo, and the distributors retail it for 19 cents. In dense urban areas, the price to distributors rises to 19 cents a kilo and the retail price is 27 cents. Compare that with up to 55 cents for conventional charcoal.

So, a farmer can be making up to $60 per day from waste, or $21,900. Compare this to the less than $5 per day income of a Ugandan farmer. . The kilns are purchased via Eco-fuel and can be micro-financed.

The demand

The average family of 6 n Uganda would use around 1 kilo per day, for three meals. That’s why energy sources like LPG are for the rich,. “If you use LPG for cooking, you are in the upper middle class,” says Moses.

The technology

Eco-fuel Africa Limited uses kilns and briquetting machines to make clean cooking energy.  Preferred are corn cobs, when available, and that’s where the yields are at the highest levels. Sugarcane is far more prevalent and has sharply lower yields.

Farmers burn their farm waste, like coffee husk, sugarcane waste and corn waste, in basic kilns made out of used oil drums to create a char that can be turned into briquettes. These briquettes are then distributed by a network of micro-retailers that are exclusively single mothers

An EcoFuel
production line

The kilns are leased to farmers who are trained how to use them to turn their agricultural waste into biochar. The farmers then sell most of the biochar to Eco-fuel Africa Limited at 4 cents a kilogram while some of the biochar is retained by the farmers and used as organic fertilizers to improve their crop yields.

Eco-fuel Africa Limited then turns the biochar bought from farmers into clean charcoal that can burn in stoves using its solar-powered briquetting machines. This clean charcoal burns in all stoves that are currently used in Africa. It’s also not smoky like wood-charcoal. But it doesn’t burn quite as well, at first. “The 5 minutes charcoal gives you more energy,” says Moses, “but charcoal burns out faster, and you get 20 minutes more with our briquettes.”

Retailing

Eco-fuel Africa Limited uses bicycles to transport its clean charcoal to its network of small-scale retailers mainly made up of women who operate small kiosks in their local areas. These women buy charcoal from Eco-fuel Africa Limited for 13 cents a kilo (in outlying areas, more like 17 cents a kilogram and then resell the charcoal to the final consumers at USD 20 cents a kilogram.

The world of low-cost social transportation

To extend operations across an entire district in Uganda costs a laughably small amount of money, compared to the investments we see in biorefineries in the developed world. IN all, as little as $20,000.

$10,000 for briquetting machines. $ 3,000 on 100 kilns. It costs $ 30 to make a kiln but each briquetting machine requires at least 50 kilns to operate at full capacity. $5,000 on storage, $700 on bicycles, and $1300 to recruit distributors.

The impact to date

Eco-fuel has become a growing enterprise.

So far, 5,800 jobs for the people at the base of the pyramid by creating income sources for over 3,000 farmers and over 2,000 micro-retailers. And Eco-fuel Africa Limited uses part of its proceeds to plant trees, working with schools, local leaders, and community based groups in the process.

The Bottom Line

A social problem, a new feedstock source opens up a new income stream for farmers, a cost-cut costs for consumers, and protection for forests at the same time.  It’s a rare “win all around” for biomass.

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