A high school graduate’s MIT-endorsed enterprise is bringing clean energy to Kenya

Most households in Kenya use charcoal, firewood and biomass as fuel.
Most households in Kenya use charcoal, firewood and biomass as fuel.
Image: AP Photo/Khalil Senosi
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At 17 and not yet out of high school, Tom Osborn—an entrepreneur from Awendo, Kenya, with a passion for clean energy and technology—had an idea that could change the life of many Kenyans. Having seen how deforestation to create cooking fuel resulted in suffering from smoke inhalation, he came up with a solution: a “clean charcoal” briquette.

His idea won a $3000 innovation grant in 2013, and shortly after, with Ian Oluoch, a schoolmate, Osborn founded Greenchar—a company that produces briquettes made with sugarcane waste, for household and industrial use. Shortly after, Osborn and Oluoch were joined by a third partner, Yina Sun, a student at Chapel Hill University in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Flash forward 18 months,  and the company has 10 full-time employees and 15 part-time salespeople who get its products to 3,000 homes and 20 companies. Since February 2015, the company has sold about 130 tons of briquettes.

With an overall investment of $210,000, Osborn said in an interview, Greenchcr has generated $40,000 in revenue, selling to pilot projects in rural areas in the southwest of the country, and in two urban slums in Nairobi. The products for household use, branded as Maaka Poa (cool charcoal), are sold by kiosks run by locals, are providing employment and revenue for the communities.

Most Kenyans use charcoal or firewood to heat their cooking stoves. Maaka Poa, Osborn says, is both better and cheaper. A kilo costs $0.3, versus $0.5 for firewood or charcoal. The briquettes burn longer, adding to the savings. ”We understood that [for customer] the main proposition is price, not health,” Osborn said during the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, where he won the Social Enterprise Challenge.

In Kenya, 75% of the population uses charcoal, firewood or biomass to operate their stoves. This not only creates pollution, but depletes natural resources, as increasing quantities of wood are required to satisfy demand.

The product distributed by Greenchar is an adaptation of an MIT technology (which has been developed together with Takachar, an MIT-based company) and Osborn says similar products are available in Uganda, Tanzania, and India. In Kenya two competitors sell recycled charcoal dust—a product still linked to wood and with lower environmental and health benefits. According to MIT studies, the “clean charcoal” results to 70% less smoke inhalation than charcoal, and up to 90% less than firewood.

Greenchar plans to expand its range of products as well as its distribution, selling to more places in Kenya as well as in Eastern African countries. The company also plans to produce a cooking stove that works more effectively with Maaka Poa.

Osborn hopes that clean fuel will be used not just for cooking but to generate electricity.  In the absence of reliable electricity, he says, “families in Kenya still use kerosene for lighting.” It’s his mission—and business goal—to change that While Osborn, who is not 20, was accepted into Harvard, he says has no intention of diverting his attention from Greenchar. “I’ll go, eventually,” he says.