Yina Sun, an American student, vividly recalls her trip to Awendo, a town in Kenya. “Every house I visited, there was a mother cooking over a three-stone fire stove with smoke blowing in her face, spreading everywhere. Standing in that same room and feeling suffocated with smoke really impacted me. Knowing that millions of women across Kenya are living this way, inhaling smoke every single day, was devastating.”
Accustomed to cooking with gas in the U.S., Yina didn’t grasp how tremendous the problem of cooking with charcoal and firewood was until her visit to Awendo.
Around 84% of households in Kenya still use small cookstoves, similar toportable grills that Americans often take on a road trip, to prepare their daily meals. Black soot from these stoves cover houses, forcing their users—predominantly women—to constantly clean. Around 15,000 deaths in the country are directly linked to household air pollution (HAP), while 36 million Kenyans are estimated to be affected by HAP.
The problem is global, as cooking with charcoal poses a serious health and environmental threat to around 3 billion people around the world, who cook and heat their houses with open fires and stoves, burning coal, wood or crop waste. A Nature Journal of Science article claims that more people die around the world from ongoing smoke inhalation than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that over four million people die prematurely from HAP-related illnesses from cooking with solid fuels.
A local social enterprise is working to change this by promoting the use of charcoal briquettes made from bagasse, an agricultural waste residue that is a smokeless and long-lasting alternative to charcoal and firewood.
Founded by a Kenyan social entrepreneur, Tom Osborn, Green Char was developed through online research and a partnership with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The organization estimated that around 10kg (22lbs) of wood and 20kg (44lbs) of CO-2 related emissions are offset through every 2kg (4lbs) bag of briquettes sold. The briquettes are smokeless while burning, reducing health risks and CO2-related emissions. Given the fact that GreenChar’s briquettes are up to 35% less expensive than charcoal, a family can save up to $200 each year on cooking fuel, which is enough to pay for a semester of school for a child. By using these charcoal briquettes instead of regular charcoal or firewood, households in Kenya could actively curb deforestation.
Close to 1.6 million tons of bagasse is produced each year in Kenya, though the numbers could be as high as 2.6 million. Factories cover considerable costs to transport bagasse to dumpsites but the residues still pose significant environmental problems. Creating charcoal briquettes from bagasse offer a way to address these waste disposal issues.
Taking note of this, GreenChar intentionally created a briquette that is used in the same way as regular charcoal, in order to considerably reduce the learning curve for families, especially for women, who are often responsible for cooking and heating their households. Therefore, the organization does not train households on how to use the briquettes. Instead, it holds community programs focused on educating women about the dangers of using wood-based charcoal and firewood in general.
Since launching sales in February 2015, GreenChar has already sold 10 tons of charcoal briquettes, in bags of 2kg, containing around 30 briquettes at $0.70 per bag. Each family can use one bag for up to two or three days.
The organization has also created a micro-franchise model through which it lends to women, enabling them to become business owners as they gradually become sole owners of the kiosks. Furthermore, it provides them with training on financial literacy as well as business development support. “One of our micro-franchisees previously sold wood charcoal, but by selling our briquettes, she has doubled her income.” Yina says, “We planned this model over a long time, so to see it actually happen is a great accomplishment.” For Yina, working with these women, engaging and empowering them has been one of GreenChar’s biggest accomplishments so far.
Soon after her initial visit to Awendo, Tom invited Yina to help build GreenChar into a business. Driven by the organization’s potential to impact the lives of people in Awendo, Yina took charge as the COO, developing a new strategy and overseeing its implementation.
The company is currently working to produce and distribute charcoal briquettes throughout Western Kenya, eventually expanding its market to all of Kenya and East Africa. Given the relatively recent release of its product, the company still faces the challenge of becoming financially sustainable. However, it hopes to focus on making the household segment profitable in the coming years.
Yina believes that social change happens when people are dissatisfied with issues they are experiencing in their community and decide to take action. While it may be one or two people sparking the action, “it takes a village” to create lasting social change. GreenChar has found a large community of people who want to improve the cookstoves industry and advance the health of millions of people.
Raluca Besliu, originally from Romania, highlights the work of young changemakers and entrepreneurs around the world.