Renewable Energy is Growing on the Trees in Africa
Renewable energy—arguably the largest industry in the world—is about to be rattled to its core by some of the most groundbreaking technology innovations in history. But the energy problems we face today, specifically in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, require a much simpler solution. Without the luxury to invest in R&D and infrastructure for the latest technologies harvesting solar and wind energy, developing economies will have to rely on the most basic type of renewable energy available: bioenergy. Bioenergy, or energy derived from organic matter (also called biomass), has been the most prevalent source of renewable energy ever since early humans started burning firewood for heat and cooking over one million years ago.
If you live in a developed country, you might think bioenergy is an archaic way to look at a continent’s energy consumption. But the reality is that 80% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy today still comes from biomass, mostly in the form of illegally-obtained firewood from deforestation. This dependence on bioenergy in one Africa’s fastest growing economies is evident from the data: Kenya’s forest cover has dropped from 10% to 1.7% over the past 50 years. If you consider that up to 20% of carbon emissions are related to deforestation, it is easy to see how this problem affects more than just the trees that are being cut down.
Developing economies will have to rely on the most basic type of renewable energy available: bioenergy. Tweet This QuoteThe promise of bioenergy in Africa is vast due to the volumes of waste being produced from the agricultural sector, which is only projected to grow in order to meet the needs of increasing populations and the emerging middle class. Bioenergy technologies range from simply burning biomass for heat to compressing it for use in special gasifiers or furnaces that convert it into electricity. Despite the wide range of methods for processing biomass, there are indigenous solutions that we haven’t even begun to discover the full potential of—until now.
The croton nut: This is just the beginning
The croton nut spreads like wildfire across the forests of the Great Rift Valley, which extends from East to South-Eastern Africa. Its seed contains a natural biofuel that can run diesel generators common throughout agricultural and industrial SMEs in the region. These businesses are either too far away from energy sources or require reliable energy not offered on local grids. Our startup called Eco Fuels Kenya (EFK Group) has been exploring this potential—hacking our way past a proof of concept into what is now a reality. We’ve managed to get more supply than we can process through a proprietary collection network that employs thousands of the region’s rural poor who harvest croton nuts from indigenous forests.
In the past two months since completing the Unreasonable East Africa program, our team has developed a briquette made from the by-product of our biofuel production. The briquette replaces burning wood in everything from cookstoves of the rural poor to commercial production of cement and bricks. High bioenergy demands from these consumers are the leading cause of the deforestation of the region because sustainable biomass options simply aren’t available in the quantities they require.
Africa’s clean energy future doesn’t have to wait for the technology to harvest the sun or the wind. It’s already growing in our backyard. Tweet This QuoteBased on a report done last year by GVEP international, there isn’t yet a single briquette producer in the country with the capacity to serve even one industrial consumer’s bioenergy needs. This is creating a significant opportunity for EFK to extend its bioenergy impact beyond croton biofuel. Furthermore, a higher calorific value in our croton-based briquettes provides more energy than typical briquettes made from waste materials like rice and coffee husks.
With our current growth targets, we plan on producing nearly 1 million liters of biofuel and 3,000 tons of briquettes per annum within five years’ time. We’ll achieve this goal by utilizing the annual nut harvests of 500,000 indigenous trees from multiple regions of the country through a collection network that will provide meaningful income to over 30,000 individuals in rural areas. We also plan to purchase the first yields from croton trees planted in our Eco Forestation Kenya orchard—a new financial incentive for reforestation efforts in East Africa.
Just think: If all this potential exists today in a nut that you’ve never even heard of before, just imagine what other bioenergy innovations are out there waiting to be taken to the mainstream. Africa’s clean energy future doesn’t have to wait for the technology to harvest the sun or the wind. It’s already growing in our backyard.
This is the first post of a two-part series telling the story of Unreasonable East Africa fellow Myles Lutheran and his company EFK Group (Eco Fuels Kenya). The next post detailing the crucial pivot they made to turn the fledgling company around during Unreasonable’s East Africa program.
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