Feeding the Planet, One Briquette at a Time

Just a few years before moving to Nairobi, Mary Njenga had a routine that many of the women in her rural village in Kenya followed as well. Two to three times a week, the women would spend half of their day traveling to cut and carry firewood back to their homes for cooking fuel. Because of deforestation, they would have to walk farther and farther to gather the materials so that they would have enough fuel.

The wood was a source of indoor pollution leading to health issues for the families, particularly women and children who would be indoors as food is prepared. As a student in Nairobi, Mary studied slum communities and found they spent a huge chunk of their budgets on oil, which left them with less than nutritious options for their actual meals. Other families were using plastic bottles that generated harmful fumes that women and children would also inhale.

“Then I realized they’re having the challenges of accessing cooking fuel. But the options they are using are riskier that could kill them quicker and I thought this is what I want to do as my purpose as an environmental scientist and so I started interacting with them a lot and that’s how I developed that small project back in 2007,” said Mary. “I saw it working for one year and I developed it into a bigger project to study for my PhD.  So it’s really like having lived a problem and then I want to be a part of solving the problem.”

It was at this point as a doctoral student that she decided to spend time perfecting the process of making biomass fuel briquettes. Made out of charcoal dust, water, paper, and other available bio materials (depending on the region one is in), these briquettes cost a fifteenth of the price of cooking with kerosene, create much less indoor pollution, and take much less time to make and use than carrying firewood from the forest. This saves families money, time, and health costs.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the World Agroforestry Center, Mary is working on making briquettes into a viable business on a large scale for poor women in Kenya. They can use the briquettes for not only their families, but they can also sell them and make an income. In a conversation Mary and I had recently, she discussed how she has started to see the manufacturing of briquettes bringing tangible community benefits. These women entrepreneurs can have more flexibility with their resources. Their children can attend better schools, and working together in a briquettes business has strengthened their sense of community.

The Planet Forward team has covered Mary’s journey and the impact of these briquettes on the environment, on families, and their connection with feeding more people. She also shared her innovation this fall at the Feeding the Planet Summit. Now a group of GW students is taking the next step. We’re working on a crowd-funding campaign to help Mary expand her project so that more women in Kenya have the facilities and knowledge they need to make and sell briqs at a larger scale. $10,000 by June 10th. Will you help play a part?

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