By Mulemia Maina
During the last annual Board meeting in Nairobi, the management team accompanied the Trustees to see GVEP-supported entrepreneurs in central and west Kenya.
I joined the group that visited entrepreneurs in Mai Mahiu and Nakuru areas in Central Cluster. We visited briquette producers Lydia Waithera and Richard Gakuo at their respective premises. We also visited SCODE (Sustainable Community Development Enterprise), an ICS assembler and distributor based in Nakuru town.As we navigated the 86 miles (138 kilometres) stretch from the capital Nairobi into Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley, I noticed the lush green wood resource covering the villages. I immediately thought about the dire threat these natural resources faced owing to the scramble for wood fuel, not only by average Kenyan households but by multinationals, some of whom export timber to lucrative international markets. A World Bank report in 2014 put Kenya’s forest cover at a mere 6.1% that year. According to the World Energy Outlook, 84% of the population in Kenya still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels, which include firewood, charcoal and agricultural waste. The use of wood fuel has come with its fair share of health implications as users inhale the toxic gases. The scramble for wood fuel has led to deforestation, posing a major environmental catastrophe.
During the visit, one entrepreneur who caught my attention was briquettes producer Lydia Waithera, who is supported through business and technology mentoring by GVEP. Her enterprise is located in Mai Mahiu’s shopping Centre in Naivasha, an hour’s drive from Nairobi. Lydia is a very enterprising and committed briquette producer whose customers are mostly chicken farmers and households. She told me that she got into the briquette making business purely by chance after a disastrous development on her chicken rearing business.At the time in 2009, 50% of her 10,000 chicks died. She learned that the possible causes of the high mortality rates, due mostly to lung infections and pneumonia, was the use of ordinary charcoal to warm the chicks, and was advised to use briquettes instead. Her first briquettes supplier was however unable to meet her needs due to a huge unmet demand in the market.
Lydia’s discovery of briquettes and the pending need of fellow farmers to fight their poultry’s high mortality rate gave her the idea of starting her own briquette business. She thus started her briquette business in 2010 and was recruited into the Capital Access for Renewable Energy Enterprises (CARE2) programme in 2013, where she received training in briquette making, was given advice about adequate machinery and was supported in getting a loan of $3,500 from a local financial institution to expand her business.
Briquettes offer an alternative solution to charcoal and can be used for cooking and heating. Not only are they less costly and burn longer, they also emit less smoke, thus creating a healthier environment. When Lydia started saving her chickens’ lives thanks to briquettes, word spread in the region and many farmers came asking for her help.She now supplies several institutions and large scale farmers. The average sale for this business is $1,077 per month.
I must confess that I was impressed with Lydia’s industrious nature. She has recently invested in three machines – two briquetting machines and one crusher, with a view of supplying supermarkets.A major learning point for me and my projection is that Lydia’s investment will increase her production from 1.5 tonnes to 7 tonnes per day. This translates to at least four times the number of beneficiaries reached. GVEP mentoring will be more critical to ensure that common pitfalls that come with rapid expansion are avoided and enable Lydia optimise her investments. This shows the importance of GVEP’s business and technical mentoring services remaining robust to such developments, and adequately supporting growing enterprises.
This enterprising woman is one among the many female entrepreneurs GVEP is supporting in the energy sector in East Africa. From briquettes to improved cookstoves and solar power, many women across the region are taking their livelihoods into their own hands, all the while serving their communities by providing solutions to their basic energy needs.
Mulemia Maina is the GVEP Programmes Manager.