From waste to wealth: the story of alternative fuel enterprise BioAfriq
When something is labelled as waste, often we see it as something to be discarded and of no value. To the team at BioAfriq, however, coffee and rice husks, straw, sisal boles and agro-residue are valuable raw materials to create an alternative fuel for local households and businesses. In this way, they reduce deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and provide an alternative income stream for farmers.
We caught up with BioAfriq founders and SEED Starter alumni Doreen Achieng Ochieng-Ivisu and James Nyamai, the husband and wife who recently were selected to join the Kenya Acceleration Programme 2019 by CIC Kenya. Their story started when they realised the damage charcoal was doing to their country, where tree cover is at only 3%. In this catch-up, they talk about separating their private from their business life, the difficulty of changing farmer mindsets and why BioAfriq is here to stay.
Doreen Achieng Ochieng-Ivisu and James Nyamai, founders of BioAfriq Energy.
SEED: Hi James, Hi Doreen, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Congratulations on being selected for the Kenya CIC Acceleration Programme. In a few words, what is BioAfriq & how did you start out?
James: Thank you, we are excited and looking forward to work on our business growth. BioAfriq is essentially a social enterprise. We recycle biomass waste such as coffee, rice husks, maize stalks and several other types of locally available biomass into biomass pellets. We also manufacture pellet fired dehydrators for drying farm produce to help reduce post-harvest losses and encourage value addition and institutional pellet fired cook stoves for learning and catering institutions that give savings of up to 50% on costs and time.
Doreen: We are based in Machakos County, which is a semi-urban area but we are in the rural part of it. We interact a lot with farmers and so understand the problems they encounter. Many in our area are small-scale farmers who grow pumpkins, bananas, tomatoes, who face harvest loss caused by climate change. This affects their financial profits each season and it becomes a vicious cycle into poverty.
SEED: That’s quite an integrated model. So what inspired you to start this business? What is BioAfriq’s story?
James: Before we began BioAfriq we were poultry farmers. In the first two weeks when the chicks are young, you’d have to give them an alternative source of heat to survive. During this time, we were using a lot of charcoal, and this made us concerned that coal was causing deforestation so we started looking for alternatives to that. From our research, we learnt that a large part of Kenya is dependent on coal as fuel. So our motivation and inspiration were to provide an alternative clean fuel that does not harm the environment and uses local waste produce.
SEED: Can you tell us more about your team? Is it just both of you?
Doreen: James is the team leader & visionary managing director. He deals with the technical part of the business, in terms of constructing the dryers, the engineering, the quality, the idea and innovations. Meanwhile, I am co-founder and wife. [Laughs].
I operate the sales; I also do marketing and take care of the legal aspects of the business, including managing the partnerships*, incorporating board of advisors et cetera. We also have Mr. Duncan Gachuhi, who is one of our business mentors, working on business strategy and financial planning for BioAfriq. Then there is Jude Songok, who has a background in engineering, and experience in alternative energy and particularly biomass fuels.
Managing Director James showcasing biomass pellets at BioAfriq premises
SEED: What is it like working as a couple?
Doreen: [Laughs] It’s really interesting; it has been a great learning curve. There has been much we had to learn regarding how we should separate relationship as husband and wife from also our relationship as business partners.
One of the life-changing things connected to our relationship as husband and wife, and business partners, was when we did SEED Starter. Our mentor Lawrence asked us to write down our business vision, and how we want to manage the business in a way that it is a separate entity from our personal pockets and personal relationships.
This exercise has helped us be very clear in our roles in our business. Now, we are clear about the targets we want to meet and we stick to strict office hours of 8–5 every day.
SEED: Can you explain the eco-inclusive impacts (the social, environmental and economic benefits) of your enterprise?
James: On the one hand we try to get people to switch from traditional harmful fuel sources to cleaner energy sources that do not cause deforestation. On the other hand, we buy farm waste from groups of farmers, usually farmer unions as raw materials for biomass pellets. This becomes an alternative income source for farmer families. We also supply our dryer equipment so that farmers are able to acquire fresh produce and preserve the food so it does not go to waste.
Doreen: We also realised when doing our pilot projects last year that education around harm to the environment is minimal.
In our county, tree cover is only at 3%, so you can imagine what that means for the climate. In schools, teachers cook for the students and they often ask students to bring firewood to substitute their school fees. That means young people start thinking that to survive they need to cut down trees, which is not true.
So we started conversations with these schools, to introduce them to fuel alternatives that work for them and to shift young peoples’ mindsets to see trees as something that needs to be protected and valued.
Katumani Secondary Pupils in awe of the stove and eating food prepared using the stove
SEED: You’re obviously familiar with UNEP and of course the SDGs. Can you explain how your work contributes towards the SDGS?
Doreen: In addition to the work we do with the schools locally, we address food sustainability problems as we play an important part in the value chain for farmers to help reduce post-harvest loss. We also provide affordable energy, selling biomass pellets at a lower cost than firewood or charcoal.
SEED: What do you enjoy most about the work you do? What motivates you to keep doing this?
James: I would say food sustainability. We’ve seen Kenyan farmers produce a lot of food during certain seasons but then are unable to conserve the food to give it longer shelf life. During dry seasons, this leads to hunger and suffering, and in our work, we directly address these problems.
Another motivation is environmental conservation by alternative fuels. Where my grandfather lives, there is a forest we used to play in when we were young. When I visited my grandparents, I noticed how badly depleted it is. People have come to chop the trees at night and bring the logs to make charcoal. I felt so bad. It’s a place I used to go and play, and now these are gone.
SEED: Beyond these issues are there other reasons that you enjoy about being an entrepreneur in this space?
Doreen: I myself am an empowered woman who works, and my husband and parents also encourage me to do so. However, for people in rural areas, being able to finish cooking on time, being efficient or deliver their responsibilities properly, they feel a sense of achievement already. There is dignity in just having a good environment to work in. I am motivated to make people feel confident that they are in the right place, doing the right thing and that they have a sense of purpose in their work.
SEED: We know for one that reliable internet access is already a barrier, what would you say are the struggles that you face in running the business?
Doreen: First the challenges we face also include getting equipment, knowledge, and access to technology. However, James being the technical brain is really good at finding solutions and research to get to know what works even though at times the best. We also have partners who help us a lot with capacity building support in terms of knowledge to grow the business.
Secondly, just trying to introduce the idea of using biomass pellets to the market has been quite a challenge. Pellets are commonly associated with rabbit and chicken feeds [laughs]. So we work to come up with catchy names and marketing methods to get people to understand our product, enter the market and change behaviour around this.
Thirdly, it is a challenge to restore local confidence in our products. In the past people in the green clean energy markets have come to Kenya to solve our challenges and then leave halfway. We are trying to restore the faith of customers that we are in it for the long run, that we are not serial entrepreneurs who just try things and then leave.
SEED: You participated in the SEED Starter before, how has that helped your enterprise? Which part would you say is a game changer for your enterprise?
Doreen: Well, first of all, the Starter Toolkit is awesome. We have it right now on the table [laughs].
James: That’s one of our main reference documents and we refer to it all the time!
Doreen: When we started the business there were five (5) of us. After the SEED programme, we had to have really difficult conversations with all the team members about our direction. As a result some team members that wanted to move in different directions dropped out. The SEED Starter was a messy process at the beginning but it really helped us narrow down our business goals. We have referred every entrepreneur we know to the Starter Programme.
SEED: What was it that you were able to clarify in terms of your business direction?
Doreen: The workshop helped us refine our business idea, clarified who our target market was and how we want to approach this market.
James: The market validation; how to approach using customer feedback to improve our business model. It also helped with team building, to be clear on whom we want to hire and what qualifications they needed to have.
SEED: What is your vision for BioAfriq? What are your plans for the next few years?
James: In the next three years, we plan to roll out the products in East Africa; where post-harvest loss is a challenge just like in Kenya. Another thing is to improve the sustainability of the supply of raw materials to make biomass pellets. We have identified a specific grass known as bativa that grows like bamboo shoots, is drought resistant and this stem can now be used as biomass. It’s great because it grows in harsh conditions, providing another crop for farmers to earn an income from.
SEED: That’s great. What could other entrepreneurs in other parts of the world learn from BioAfriq’s experience?
James: Um, well it is really a lot about persistence and passion. This is something I teach my daughter always – never give up. Sometimes we encourage challenges, but they’re opportunities for us to grow. This mentality has really helped us grow to this level. We are passionate about solving social problems. You see, it is not about just money & profits but also a lot about the social impacts you create through solving social problems. If one is focused only on profits, it is easy to quit when the money does not come or does not come quick enough.
Doreen: Entrepreneurs need to be really involved in the business strategy and seek out information and support opportunities from organisations like SEED. One needs to be humble to seek avenues to learn how to run a business. These days, especially with young entrepreneurs, it’s popular and attractive to want to ‘be your own boss’ but there is a lack of conversation about the sacrifice of time and lack of necessary knowledge they need to be aware of.
* Nishant Bioenergy (India) & Nisa Bioenergie (France) are partners in developing the pellet fired cook stove; Miller Center provided a scholarship for the E4Impact MBA program; Total provides funding and publicity.