Approximately 84 percent of all households in Kenya use solid fuels for cooking. This rate spikes to 95 percent for Kenyans who live in rural households. So as they have for generations, most families in Kenya use cookstoves three times a day to prepare their meals. But the results are negative all around: deforestation, increased carbon emissions and a massive threat to public health. The Alliance for Clean Cookstoves estimates over 36 million Kenyans are affected by household air pollution (HAP); over 15,000 deaths in Kenya annually are directly related to HAP. One social enterprise, GreenChar, is trying to reverse that trend.
GreenChar is trying to take a different approach from other cookstove initiatives that have launched, and failed, in Kenya, Africa, and in other developing regions such as India. As an article in Nature earlier this year outlined, the fact that one-third of the world’s population uses solid fuel to cook food takes a toll on our environment, on families and on their communities. But despite the best intentions, scores of cookstove projects have failed, for a bevy of economic and cultural reasons. An 18-year-old social entreprenuer who recently graduated from high school, however, hopes to buck this discouraging trend.
Tom Osborn grew up in Awendo, western Kenya, not far from the border with Tanzania. He and his younger spent much of their time gathering firewood and charcoal to help their mother with her daily cooking routine; Tom’s task was to light the cookstove daily. Tired of watching the effects the cookstove had on his mother’s health, and curious about innovations that would allow them to cook safely and cleanly, he started building prototypes and explored fuel alternatives to wood. He eventually submitted his idea for a cleaner cookstove in an entrepreneurship competition, and his US$3,000 Anzisha Prize helped him launch GreenChar, which he co-founded with Ian Oluoch.
Joining them is Yina Sun, a former pre-med student who became disenchanted with her career path, became interested in cookstoves from a public health perspective, and is now the Chief Operating Officer of GreenChar. For Sun, the fact that smoke inhalation is the world’s fourth greatest health risk after high blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol was her motivation to join GreenChar.
GreenChar’s business model has two important components. First, the company manufactures charcoal briquettes out of agricultural waste. GreenChar also distributes clean cookstoves that maximize the efficiency of the briquettes. According to Osborn, critical to the company’s success is the expansion of women’s clubs that have several purposes: to collect payments for the cookstoves (at $25 to $40 paying for them up front is out of most Kenyan's budgets); offer tips on how to use the cookstoves efficiently and correctly; and also train them how to make their own briquettes. The company's ideas are not necessarily radical, Sun explained; rather, the fact GreenChar's products are closer to traditional cooking equipment and fuel should help build trust among the company's potential customers.
It is this community-based approach where Osborn, GreenChar’s, Oluoch, Sun and the rest of the company’s team hopes the company finds traction. During my conversation with Osborn and Sun yesterday, she reminded me that many cookstove programs fail not only because of faulty equipment, but often because locals want to use the same technology to which they are accustomed. Furthermore, Kenyans are more open to purchasing a stove from a local company such as GreenChar, instead of a firm based abroad. After a few months, the company is gaining traction; 4,300 kilograms of clean burning charcoal briquettes and 400 cookstoves have saved over 100 trees and had an impact on over 6,000 lives.
A crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo is underway as part of GreenChar’s goals to expand, but Osborn, Oluoch and Sun have been aggressive scoring additional funds. Osborn won a huge boost with his recent Echoing Green Fellowship, and in fact he is the youngest recipient ever within this program. GreenChar has received boosts from other grants this year as well. The challenges this group faces are numerous, but its growth is nonetheless impressive. In less than a year, what was once a high school science project has taken off, and could inspire more ideas to help make a daily task, with which billions struggle daily, safer and less of a threat to their health.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.