By Peter Oliver Ochieng

As the largest informal settlement in Kisumu City, Nyalenda is home to tens of hundreds of low-income residents who depend on charcoal for cooking.

The vast informal settlement, with an estimated population of 50,000, is divided into two: Nyalenda A and B. Majority of the residents rely on charcoal or firewood for cooking.

Thus, the demand for charcoal is high. This leads to widespread deforestation in the countryside thereby contributing to climate change.

In response, a 12-member United Destiny Shapers Women Group based in Nyalenda A are making and selling briquettes (popularly known as Makwangla in Dholuo, a local dialect) for cooking instead of charcoal.  The venture started in 2016.

Briquette is a compressed block or slab made from various flammable items such charcoal dust, sawdust and clay, with an ability of starting and maintaining a fire, essentially for cooking.

A section of United Destiny Women Group members mix charcoal dust with saw dust

Pamela Awino, the chairperson of the group, has been a resident of Nyalenda for about 20 years.

The group started by mixing charcoal dust and clay soil using their bare hands to make what Awino termed as low-quality briquettes. However, recently Practical Action, a local community-based organization, gave the group a briquette-making machine.

“We partnered with Practical Action who trained us on how to make proper and high-quality briquettes. They then brought us a machine which we are currently using,” Awino happily narrated.

This has increased the group’s production capacity: “We are making them in large numbers and selling to various people in the community. We are also using them for cooking in our own homes. There’s a ready market and the demand is very high,” she added.

Initially, while using their hands, Pamela and her colleagues could not make a sack of briquettes in a day. But now, with the machine, they can make up to three sacks ‘without breaking much sweat.’

Vitalis Otieno is a business mentor at Practical Action. He said they decided to donate the briquette making machine to United Destiny Women Group, in a bid to upscale their production. “We got interested in what they were doing with their bare hands, and decided to hand them the machine so as to upscale their production.”

United Destiny Women Group members feeding the briquette making machine

Otieno said they now expect the women to produce briquettes in large numbers and reach more clients for economic sustainability. “What we expect them to do is to make and sell briquettes in large numbers, besides spreading the green/clean energy gospel,” he said.

He added, “Apart from them being empowered economically, the number of people they will reach with the green energy information will increase. That is how we will be moving away from the traditional methods of cooking which entail use of charcoal and firewood. People will adopt the new method of cooking which is cleaner, safer and healthier.”

The process towards realizing quality briquettes starts with the buying of charcoal dust from charcoal sellers. The sellers are readily available in Nyalenda and other informal settlements in Kisumu. A sack of charcoal dust goes for Sh.500 ($5). The group purchases two to three sacks a day.

The dust is then taken to their office, at the United Destiny Shapers group. It is sieved to remove foreign particles such as nails and stones. The charcoal dust is then mixed with sawdust and held together with sticky cassava porridge.

“We use the cassava porridge to holds the mixture together because it is like a strong glue. We use 15 liters of porridge to come up with one sack of briquettes,” said the chairperson.

The mixture is then fed into the machine to produce quality briquettes. They are then dried in the sun for two to three days, depending on the weather patterns before hitting the market.

Raw briquettes straight from the machine

Briquettes are more affordable to the community. A 2 kilograms tin of briquettes goes for Sh70 (less than a dollar), compared to charcoal which goes for Sh100 ($1), for the same quantity.

The Sh70 briquettes can cook up to four meals, Pamela intimates. These may include breakfast, lunch, supper and breakfast for the next day.

A sack of briquettes sells for Sh1, 600 ($16) compared to the same quantity of charcoal, which goes for about Sh2000 ($20).

According to the chairperson, “briquettes are the way to go through and through as far as cooking is concerned. No thick smoke, and it is very silent. I personally enjoy cooking with it,” she says enthusiastically.

Her sentiments were echoed by George Kopala, community development expert in Kisumu.

“Use of briquettes will help to us go a long way in conserving our environment, because this comes from recycling of waste products that is already used like charcoal and sawdust. It is less costly and also helps us embrace the idea of going green like what the world is now recommending,” said Kopala.

He added, “The use of briquettes is cheap compared to other sources of energy. Use of firewood for example leads to cutting down of trees which causes deforestation and therefore spoiling our environment.”

Briquettes burning on a jiko

Phoebe Awino, a resident of Nyalenda A has used briquettes in her cooking for two years. “No smoke, no bad smell and your cooking is always cool,” she says. With a family of six people, the Sh70 briquettes can last her two days.

According to Judith Akinyi, a member of United Destiny Women Group, after production of the briquettes, each member is given a fraction to sell in the community. They then meet every Wednesday to compare review their performance.

“We have a bank account where we save a fraction of the proceeds, while a big chunk goes into giving loans to members. Most of the members are widows. The loaning system helps them to meet various family needs, such as paying school fees for their children,” said Akinyi who has lived in Nyalenda for 15 years.

She said on a good month, they can get Sh16, 000 from the briquette business. Akinyi said all the members use briquettes in their homesteads. However, they do not get them for free. “We also buy because we want our group to grow,” she added.

The biggest challenge however comes when it rains. And in Kisumu when it rains, it pours. “During rains, we find it difficult to dry the briquettes. Like recently, we had an order of three sacks but we could not deliver because it rained throughout the week,” Akinyi noted.

Mrs. Phoebe Awino with cooking porridge with her jiko full of briquettes

As much as women in Nyalenda continue to push for adoption of briquettes as a modern way of cooking, most Kenyans are still not aware of the benefits of briquettes as one of the ways of saving our forests.

Rosemary Owigar, a lecturer at Maseno University’s Department of Geography and Natural Resource Management says that the biggest challenge facing uptake of briquettes in Kenya today is the lack of awareness.

“If we look at the proportions of people using briquettes currently more so in Kenya and Kisumu for that matter, the demand is still very low. It is very low because people are still not aware of the core benefits. There has to be awareness because currently when people go to the supermarkets and they see those briquettes, they just look at them as they do not know what they are for. In the first place, most people don’t even know them,” she said.

“People must be made aware that briquettes are the way to go because they are smokeless as compared to wood fuel and charcoal. Because it is smokeless, it protects people; it prevents people from acquiring those respiratory diseases. So you are safer in terms of your health using briquettes than using charcoal. That information should be there in the public domain.”

She suggested that all stakeholders; ranging from those making briquettes, County governments, institutions of higher learning like Maseno University and environmentalists should join forces in ensuring that information on the benefits of using briquettes is shared widely.