When it is lunchtime in most schools in Kenya, heavy smoke fills the air. Cooks who report for duty at 5AM every weekday and work until 8PM rush to serve more than 1,000 students and staff. But it is not the hard work or the long hours that bother most of these cooks – it is the smoke. The use of wood fuel and charcoal to prepare student meals comes with high costs for the environment, the health of cooks and students, and it is a financial burden for parents and schools.
Schools are by far the most significant consumers of fuel. About 90 percent of public schools use firewood for cooking and pay up to USD 20,000 per year for the wood. This makes cooking fuel one of the biggest expenses in schools’ meal budgets.
Solving this problem head-on is Acacia Innovations. The Waste to Energy Enterprise, launched in October 2016, manufactures and distributes non – carbonized briquettes to schools, factories and industries. The briquettes technology is not new in Kenya, but it is alarming that the average Kenyan still has never heard of briquettes!
Its eco-friendly briquettes, called Kuni Safi (Swahili for clean firewood), are made of waste products from the harvest of the local sugarcane crop. The trash would have been left on the ground to rot once the sugarcane was taken from the fields. Instead of letting the waste decompose and produce methane gas, Acacia Innovations collects, dries and turns it into briquettes.
The founder of Acacia Innovations, Elana Laichena, an entrepreneur with experience in the renewable energy and clean cooking sector in Kenya and the US, says her enterprise is the largest supplier of clean cooking fuels to schools in Kenya, serving over 300 schools in 20 counties.
“So far, we are the largest supplier of clean cooking fuels to schools in Kenya, with over 350 school customers in 20 counties,” Laichena says. “To date, we have sold over 4,000 tons of Kuni Safi briquettes. An equivalent of 100,000 trees and impacted over 175,000 school children.”
Kuni Safi is ideal for providing a smoke-free learning environment and contributes to affordable school meals. In addition, Laichena explains that the enterprise has created jobs for over 100 Kenyans, of whom 50 percent are women.
“Kuni Safi works best for cooking, heating water and wood-fired electricity generation. For example, an average of 50 kilograms of Kuni Safi can be used to cook for a boarding school of up to 1000 pupils a whole day,” Laichena explains.
Among the schools that enjoy the smokeless product are Starehe Boys Centre, State House Girls, Ngara Girls, Lukenya Schools and Good Testimony Schools. Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort and CitiZone Caterers have not been left behind in the clean energy shift either.
Aside from Kuni Safi, the company also manufactures cook stoves for which they have developed an innovative financing model. “If a customer signs a contract to purchase our Kuni Safi briquettes at a minimum of 26 sacks over six months, we sell them cook stoves at 50 percent off the market price,” Laichena states.
When asked how the company has built a name for itself in the noisy marketplace, Laichena is optimistic that her company has a trademark.
“We distinguish ourselves in the market by building a national brand with guaranteed quality and reliability. We deliver on time in quantities from one sack to 28 tons. Moreover, we provide top-notch after-sales support, including practical training for every customer to ensure the Kuni Safi briquettes are used economically,” she says.
The journey for Acacia Innovations to get at the top of the list as the clean energy producer for schools in Kenya has not been without its share of challenges.
“Kenyans can be very resistant to change and skeptical of things they have not heard of before. It took us over a year to convince some school cooks that Kuni Safi can be a better improvement on charcoal or firewood,” the company CEO states.
Additionally, transporting low-cost bulky goods across Kenya comes with several challenges. Bad roads, heavy traffic jams and vehicle breakdowns cost the company money.
It is, however, the impact of its products that keep the company going. The trees left standing to save five tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime. The briquettes burn nearly smoke-free, and cooks no longer suffer from coughs and watery eyes with lower health risks.
The company has won several prizes such as the Startup Energy Transition Award and the Women in Energy Kenya Award for its innovative technology. As if that is not enough, it is still basking in the warmth of the latest feather in her cap. Acacia Innovations is supported by Kenya Climate Ventures, a climate impact investment company, to expand its production.
This article was first published on Sunday Nation