Clean energy entrepreneurs create a brisk trade in Uganda

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Farooq Kiryowa's cookstove manufacturing plant lies down a narrow slum road in this city's impoverished Kakungulu neighborhood, where under tin-roofed tenements women and children toil in heat, dust and squalor as Kampala's permanent underclass.

Above the din of a recent November morning, a distinct sound rings out over the slum: the "clang-clang-clang" of hammers pounding steel. The sound grows louder as you approach a small collection of roadside buildings, the largest of which is adorned with the word "ENERGY" scrawled in yellow paint.

The script is shorthand for Energy Uganda Foundation Ltd., the business founded by Kiryowa six years ago with a goal of providing clean-burning cookstoves to every woman in the Kakungulu zone and as far beyond as his then-20-year-old legs could carry him and his stoves.

Today, at age 26, Kiryowa is producing between 2,000 and 3,000 improved cookstoves per month with a staff of 29 laborers. He sells the stoves, which require half the charcoal and emit far less smoke than conventional stoves, for between 15,000 and 30,000 shillings ($6 to $12) per unit. That makes him an unqualified business success in a section of Kampala where success -- at least in Western terms -- is almost never achieved.

Across town, in the slightly less rutted Kyebando neighborhood, 52-year-old Charles Kyamanywa is also hard at work fashioning improved cooking briquettes out of a mixture of crushed charcoal and clay. He will make 50 kilograms (or about 350 fist-sized units) of briquettes in a day, enough to keep his primary client, a nearby restaurant, supplied with cooking fuel, while selling the rest of his briquettes at a roadside stand for 1,000 shillings apiece.

Kyamanywa didn't plan a career that involves daily encounters with wet charcoal and mud that leave his clothes and hands stained carbon black. For 22 years, he wore a pressed uniform and earned a regular paycheck as a Sheraton Hotel bellman, a plum job in a city where unemployment is officially 11 percent but underemployment soars into much higher double digits.

But after years of wishing for a more self-directed career -- and motivated by a personal interest and concern for Uganda's environmental health -- Kyamanywa turned in his Sheraton uniform and struck out on his own as the founder of DECO Enterprises, his small but growing briquette business.


"No regrets," he said of the career change. "I like the work, and I'm making a difference."

He also earns more money. Escorting guests to hotel rooms netted between 350,000 and 380,000 shillings in take-home pay each month. Today, in a good month, Kyamanywa says he earns as much as 600,000 shillings.

Moving away from pollution

While Kiryowa and Kyamanywa know each other only tangentially, they represent a growing group of African entrepreneurs who are building viable businesses around the concept of environmental sustainability and clean energy.

According to Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEP) International, a nonprofit helping alternative energy startups get established in East Africa, there are more than 700 such businesses operating today in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. All have benefitted from GVEP International's Developing Energy Enterprises Project (DEEP), a $4 million economic development campaign backed by the European Union and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Many more could follow, especially as the first generation of climate entrepreneurs proves that African consumers are willing to shift from a carbon-intensive and highly polluting household economy based on wood and charcoal to one of cleaner, more cost-efficient fuels and technologies.

"I don't wish to find my kid with everything spoiled," said Kiryowa, who lives with his wife and young daughter within walking distance of his cookstove plant. "I'm sure that if I'm one of these [clean energy] companies, I can make it better for her when she grows up."

So far, his prospects look good.

While Energy Uganda Foundation Ltd. isn't the largest or longest-established manufacturer of "improved cookstoves" in Uganda, it is one of the fastest-growing. The company's payroll, which averages more than 1.5 million shillings per week, has doubled in the past 24 months, and its stoves are now available in stores in Kampala and beyond.

The stoves, which look like oversized paint cans fitted with clay liners that absorb and convey heat from small charcoal burners, are fashioned from galvanized steel and regionally sourced clay. Kiryowa's employees manufacture them by hand. The work is noisy and labor-intensive, but his employees work with assembly-line speed, and his storeroom is stocked high with his signature orange and yellow cookstoves.

"In 10 years, I want to be building at least 9,000 stoves per month," Kiryowa said. "In fact, I want to be the leading supplier of improved cookstoves in the country."

Making money and, hopefully, saving forests

If Kiryowa realizes his goal, some of the credit will go to nonprofits like GVEP International and U.S.-based Impact Carbon, which has helped the Energy Uganda Foundation establish itself in the physical marketplace as well as in the world of carbon finance, where Kiryowa is earning revenue from the sale of voluntary emissions credits.

John Gwillim, Impact Carbon's Uganda country manager, said his group, which emerged from the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health, is committed to putting clean cookstoves in millions of African households with a goal of both reducing carbon pollution and aiding human health by reducing exposure to toxic smoke from wood fires.

"Our goal is to help solve a public health and environmental crisis that comes from the burning of huge amounts of wood," Gwillim said. "Providing clean cookstoves at subsidized prices is one way we try to do that."

Indeed, the burning of wood, and the cutting of forests to obtain wood for charcoal and direct burning, is one of Africa's most serious environmental challenges (ClimateWire, Nov. 19).

Scientists estimate that charcoal and wood burning across the continent will contribute as much as 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050 and that as many as a half-a-million sub-Saharan African women and children die prematurely each year due to respiratory disease caused by smoke inhalation.

Herbert Mwambu, coordinator of business development services for GVEP International in Uganda, said the group's roster of entrepreneurs has expanded dramatically over the past few years as aspiring newcomers find niches in the clean energy economy. Participants work in one of four clean energy sectors: improved cookstove manufacturing, briquette making, small-scale PV solar, and the development of biogas digesters that convert mostly animal wastes into methane for cooking and lighting.

"It's good business, and it's sustainable," Mwambu said.

And while many of the enterprises are in urban districts like Nairobi and Kampala, where capital and carbon pollution are most concentrated, GVEP maintains a strong commitment to rural districts, where energy security is an even greater challenge due to poor infrastructure and underdeveloped market networks.

From pigpen to blue flame

On a recent afternoon in Masaka district, about 80 miles southwest of Kampala, Moses Wamala parks his mud-streaked motorcycle at a town center petrol station and climbs into the back seat of a leased Honda CRV for a ride into the nearby countryside.

Wamala's clothes smell distinctly of livestock, though his interest in farm animals is only tangential. The 31-year-old founder of Idex Energy Consult & Investments is the region's leading installer of biogas digesters, which convert pig and cattle manure into clean-burning methane gas for use by rural homeowners.

The job, which requires traveling hundreds of miles weekly by motorcycle along unimproved rural roads, can be grueling, tiresome and smelly. But with an annual income of roughly 8.5 million shillings, Wamala describes his work as a labor of love.

"I like biogas very much because when I construct the digesters, the owners become so excited and they're very happy," he said. "They invite me back again and again. It's like I become a part of their families."

Wamala's assertion is soon borne out at the farm of Stella Birungi, 50, and her 19-year-old son, Emmanuel, who raise pigs in wooden sheds beside expansive gardens of fruits, vegetables and coffee. Birungi, who lost her husband to AIDS in the early 1990s, sells the fattened hogs to butchers for her primary source of income, and she and Emma live off the bounty of the family gardens.

As is common in rural Africa, Birungi's home is entirely off grid. Water and power lines may never be routed to the hillside farm hidden in a dense thicket of banana trees. But the house is a marvel of energy innovation as one of the first in the district to be equipped with a methane-burning stove and light fixture.

She takes genuine pride in the blue flame that boils her drinking water, cooks her meals and lights her one living room lamp. The house was recently redecorated to her liking, with creamy white walls setting off a smattering of artwork and family mementos.

"It's very comfortable and very clean," she said of the house, which was equipped with biogas in 2008. "The first day I saw the light and flame, I couldn't believe that it was coming from that dung out there. I'm very happy about it."

She's also happy about the energy savings benefit, estimated at about 60,000 shillings per month that used to go for firewood and charcoal.

The biogas digester, which cost about 1.3 million shillings in materials and installation costs, was paid for in part by a grant from Heifer International, and the pigs provide all the necessary fuel. As an added benefit, she can use the digester's output, called "bioslurry," to fertilize the gardens.

"I never worry about not having enough," she said. "I can take care of myself and my son, so we are blessed."

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