Postcard from Africa’s Green Energy Frontier
I returned just a few days ago from visiting our project and partner in Uganda, just in time to submit this update for the Global Giving Matching Day, Wednesday, March 14th.
I was in Rubaare to check on the progress of the first phase of our clean tech/renewable fuel project with our local partner, the Rubaare Education Foundation schools.
As you might recall, we invested your generous contributions last fall to buy 10 hydraulic briquette-making presses to kick start our fuel-briquette-making industry at the school. The goal is to use the fuel briquettes to reduce, and eventually displace completely, the use of wood in the school’s kitchen.
What I saw in Rubaare
Overall, the project is working as intended. Briquettes are being produced. They burn well. And they are reducing the school’s dependence and costs of using traditional wood fuel. In fact, I was pleased to learn that, by Henry Twinemasiko’s estimates, (the REF school director), they have saved the equivalent of three truckloads of woodfuel in the course of this term! Financially, that means a savings of about 1M Ugandan shillings (about USD 300). The savings are important but we expect to do better when we are able to ramp up production and introduce more energy efficient stoves to replace the very smoky, crude mud stoves currently in use.
Problems and Proposed Solutions
Henry and I sat down with some of the members of the Briquette-Making Club to learn what’s working and what’s not. Here’s what the students and kitchen staff said:
1. Production is right now limited due to the fact that the briquettes are currently being produced outdoors. This is supposed to be the rainy season, but everything’s messed up. Either way, it still makes it difficult for the briquettes to dry when it does rain. The solution to this problem is straightforward: build a shelter to house operations. And that’s what we plan to do thanks to the successful fundraising carried out online and through the Green Team from Seven Bridges Middle School in Westchester County, New York. Thank you!
Part of my time with Henry was spent pricing out materials and designing the shelter. I’m confident we can build a good shelter for under US 2,000.00
2. Securing the raw material for the briquettes. The briquettes are currently made using a combination of sawdust, charcoal fine, and paper (which acts as a binding agent). There are two problems with using these materials. The first is that none of these ingredients originate from true renewable sources, as would be the case using agricultural waste. What’s more, without a large, concentrated urban base, waste paper is not easy to come by. The second problem is that some of the locals are catching on the potential value of the byproduct of their wood milling and charcoal trading operations. This means they are raising their costs for our raw material.
Our solution is to experiment with carbonizing various types of agricultural waste available to use as a substitute to charcoal dust and/or saw dust. We also would like to purchase a chipper or grinding mill to improve the quality and size of the raw material used. One additional benefit is that the school can also use the grinding mill to grind the maize (corn) that is a basic ingredient of the ubiquitous “posho” dish. The grinding mill would further reduced the price of each 100kg of maize purchased from around 140K – 180K Ugandan Shillings down to 100K – 120K.
3. Reduce use of briquettes per meal cooked and improve indoor air pollution. It’s very apparent that the stoves currently used are hugely inefficient and very polluting. I was only able to stay in the kitchen for a few minutes because the air inside was so quickly choked with smoke. Our plan is to quickly identify a brick and mortar design for a better stove that will boost efficiency and reduce emissions.
4. Explore different briquettes designs. One of the important goals of the project is not just to reduce wood fuel consumption, but also create an income generating opportunity for the school. The current briquettes are not optimal for cooking in the traditional stoves used in homes. We think the school could produce either an extruded briquette or a “fireball” type briquette, which could more easily be used as a substitute in wood and/or charcoal-burning stoves.
In my roundtable with the members of the Briquette-making Club, it became evident that REF and TCP are together nurturing the country’s next generation of energy efficiency and green fuel engineers. In light of the recent report that shows this as a potentially huge economic opportunity, we’re excited to be at the forefront of training and building Uganda’s future green economy.
As our donors and investors, we hope you will also share our enthusiasm for our venture, especially because we could not do this without your support. Thank you!