Kenya: Unique Biofuel Warms Its Way to Kitchen As Search for Green Energy Hots Up

Standing in his exhibition stand at the Kisumu Regional Agricultural Fair, Mr Mohamed Kadhi holds up a bottle of viscous yellow gel and explains to the group of onlookers the wonders of what he terms as the “the future of the country’s energy needs”.

What he is holding up is a bottle of bio-ethanol gel, an alternative bio-fuel developed by Consumer’s Choice Limited to bridge the country’s reliance on petroleum products.

The quest for green and renewable energy has been top on the agenda of world economies over the last decade as oil production continues to drop.

Green energy

As the demand for energy soars on the back of a robust global economy, the cost of crude oil which is the basic component that sustains most of the world’s energy needs remains high. This has led to increasing production costs, forcing consumers to dig deeper in their pockets for essential commodities leading to increased inflation.

It is on this background that the government initiated the Green Kenya Initiative (GKI) to advocate for the development of policies, strategies and investment choices that will drive the adoption of green and renewable energy solutions. To boost this endeavour, the World Bank recently approved a $330 million loan (Sh2.64 billion) to help the country invest in renewable energy.

Much of the effort has however been on large scale projects and this prompted Consumer’s Choice Limited to embark on a project to provide alternative energy solutions for rural households.

“The future of the country and of the world is in adopting renewable energy and we have sought to develop affordable energy solutions for this emerging market,” says Mohamed Kadhi, the business development manager at Consumer’s Choice.

The company has developed a bio-ethanol gel that is made from molasses, a by-product of sugarcane. “During the sugar extraction process, molasses is derived as one of the by-products”, explains Mr. Mohamed. “The molasses is used to develop technical alcohol which is the chief ingredient of the bio-ethanol gel”.

Consumer Choice Ltd obtains their technical alcohol from the Agro Chemical and Food Company in Muhoroni which is currently the sole producer of technical alcohol in the country.

“What then happens is that we take the technical alcohol and export it to Tanzania where we have a partnership with Moto Poa Limited, a company that manufactures bio-fuels and specialised stoves”.

The technical alcohol is enriched with other chemical additives to enhance its physical and chemical composition for increased efficiency. The result of the enrichment is a viscous yellow liquid that burns slowly and emits a higher heat output. The viscosity of the gel is designed to make its use safer by minimising cases of accidental spillage. The final product is then shipped back to Kenya ready for packaging and distribution.

The bio-ethanol burns on specialised stoves that emit heat similar in temperature to the heat output of liquefied petroleum gas, LPG cookers. Already, Consumer’s Choice Ltd has entered an agreement with Ukwala supermarkets to be their retail outlets for the Moto Poa bio-ethanol gel and stoves and is planning to increase the distribution network to other retail stores.

The bio-ethanol gel retails at the recommended price of Sh160 per litre while the stove goes for Sh1,800.

“This is an alternative and clean energy solution especially in rural and poor households who use firewood, crop waste or paraffin to cook,” says Mr Mohamed. “One litre of the gel burns for four and a half hours non-stop which is far more than the energy output derived from paraffin.

In addition to this, unlike paraffin and coal, bio-ethanol gel cuts down on harmful indoor emissions and is enriched with a chemical additive that produces a sweet smelling lemon fragrance that also acts as a mosquito repellant”.

Since its introduction in the Kenyan market, Consumer’s Choice has sold over 2,000 units and is looking to upscale its production by creating partnerships with UN agencies and other non-governmental organisations.

“We are currently partnering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR in a pilot project at the Kakuma refugee camp. Under the programme, 70 families have been supplied with the stove and a daily one litre ration of bio-ethanol gel”.

The project is meant to encourage the refugees at the camp who mostly rely on firewood for cooking, to adopt clean and sustainable energy alternative.

“The refugees at the camps cut down trees and shrubs for firewood which is not sustainable and certainly not in arid parts like Northern Kenya. The gradual but steady deforestation will eventually lead to complete exhaustion of the already sparse vegetation cover and they will have no energy resource to turn to”.

As the country soldiers on the quest for alternative and clean energy, Mr Mohamed and his team are betting on increased awareness and sensitisation to drive up the demand from households keen on adopting bio-ethanol. The company buys the entire stock of Agro-Chemical’s technical alcohol of 105,000 liters per month and has the capacity of supplying up to 140, 000 litres of ethanol gel per month.

While Consumer’s Choice states that this production can easily be doubled by the beginning of next year, the company is calling on the government to remove duty levied on the bio-ethanol gel.

“We are forced to export the technical alcohol to Tanzania for value addition while we can do it on our own here in Kenya. The problem is that the Kenya Revenue Authority, KRA levies very steep excise duty on the production of the gel”, says Mr. Mohamed.

“If we were to produce the gel locally, the overall local production costs would double and this would cause the eventual shelf price of the gel to rise beyond the reach of our target consumers”. The bio-ethanol gel can also be made from other crops such as sugar beet, maize, wheat and potatoes among other crops.

Elsewhere, in a village in Nyakach, Kisumu County, Mrs. Jessica Ochieng’ prepares the ingredients for a normal mid-day meal at 10am. Her method of cooking is however different from her neighbours’ by more than just the ingredients.

Her meal is prepared entirely by a solar powered contraption dubbed CookIt which is a simple but efficient device made up of recycled paper lined with aluminum foil that harvests the sun’s rays and converges them onto a blackened sufuria. The sufuria is the normal light weight grade found in local supermarkets that is painted over with black paint.

Preserving environment

CookIt has been adopted by women in Nyanza and Western Kenya and has been touted as a practical and affordable solution to cutting reliance on wood and charcoal fuel in rural communities, thereby preserving the environment.

“The kit can cook any type of food from Ugali to cakes except for deep fried meals and it eliminates the need for constant supervision”, explains Ms Ochieng’.

“For a standard meal of Ugali for example, one only needs to mix the maize flour and water in the ratio of 1:1, cover it tightly with the lid and after two hours in the sun, the meal is ready,” she explains.

In addition to this, the solar cooker is portable and it can be carried to the field where the food can slowly cook un-attended while one is left free to work on the field.

A brain-child of Dr Bob Metcalf, professor of Biological Sciences at California State University, Sacramento, the solar cooker first made its debut in the Kenyan consumer market via Solar Cookers International (SCI).

Innovations such as CookIt and Moto Poa are examples of grassroots efforts that if scaled up nationally, could go a long way in solving the two-pronged problem of finding clean renewable energy and stemming environmental degradation.