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A Surprising Solution to Kenya’s Cooking Fuel Crisis: Human Waste

The women restaurateurs of Nakuru were hit hard by a recent ban on logging that pushed up cooking fuel prices. But they are turning a profit again thanks to clean-burning briquettes made from human waste.

Written by Reuben Okonda Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Clean-burning briquettes made from human waste have allowed Kenya’s women restaurant owners to go back into business.Reuben Okonda

NAKURU, Kenya – Kenya is in the grips of a cooking fuel crisis. In February, the ministry of environment banned logging in all forests around the country for three months, citing widespread environmental degradation. In May, the ban was extended for a further six months.

In the face of a resulting shortage of charcoal and firewood, the price of wood-based fuels, cooking gas and kerosene have skyrocketed. While charcoal used to trade at $8 per 90kg bag, the same amount of fuel now goes for $30. The price is expected to rise more as the ban continues.

Some of those hit hardest by price rises have been traders who run small restaurants and food stalls, the majority of whom are women. Many had to shutter their businesses after it became clear that their clients could not afford the higher prices they were forced to impose to compensate for the rising price of fuel.

But in the city of Nakuru, 100 miles northwest of Nairobi, the local government is supporting a project that produces cheap, clean-burning fuel briquettes from a surprising, and sustainable, source: human waste.

The Nakuru Water and Sanitation Services Company (NAWASSCO), collects the waste from latrines and septic tanks around Nakuru town using special exhauster trucks and transports it to a processing plant. At the plant, the waste is discharged into drying beds inside greenhouses and left to dry until moisture content drops below 5 percent.

After drying, the waste is carbonized at temperatures of 700C, then added to sawdust, which itself has been carbonized at 300C. Molasses is added to the mixture as a binder before it is discharged on a rotating container to produce small, spherical briquettes.

Back in Business

The women food sellers of the region say the introduction of the briquettes, which burn for longer than charcoal and produce less smoke, has allowed them to return to work.

Jane Thuku, 45, operates a small restaurant in an industrial area on the outskirts of Nakuru. Like many of the women-run eateries in Kenya, it’s a makeshift shelter made of corrugated iron. Long benches run along each side of the shelter, where customers can sit and grab themselves a grilled meat lunch for as little as 50 cents.

But Thuku had to close up shop in April due to the shortage of charcoal.

“Since I was spending a lot on cooking energy, I was forced to raise food prices. But later I came to realize that my clients could not afford the higher prices, so they started leaving my restaurant. This forced me to close it up as I was not making any profit,” she says.

But after the introduction of the briquettes, she has been able to turn a profit once more. Thuku said the briquettes came at the right time to save people from high fuel prices. A packet costs 60 cents and the briquettes go much further than the same amount of charcoal.

“When I started using the briquettes I also lowered the food price, because the briquettes that I am using for cooking are cheap. I saw there was no need for overcharging my clients.”

“The briquettes [stay] lit for a longer time with less smoke compared to charcoal. People were saying that the briquettes could produce a bad smell but that is not the case, in fact they smell sweet.”

Fuel briquettes burn on a meat roasting kiln at a small restaurant in Nakuru town. (Reuben Okonda)

Mary Adhiambo, 38, runs an informal restaurant in Nakuru. She too has embraced the briquettes, saying that she is now earning a good profit.

“I prepare tea, vegetables, potatoes and meat without adding [more] briquettes to the kiln,” she says, adding that sometimes she uses the same briquettes more than once. After their first use, she will condense the briquettes down by putting them in a tight metal container until the temperature drops, before using them again.

Adhiambo, who is a poultry farmer, also uses the briquettes to keep her chicks warm at night, which has given her respite from high electricity charges.

Overcoming Taboos

When the briquette project launched last year, there was limited take-up. Many people were opposed to using the new fuel because of the taboo source material, but, in part thanks to the logging ban, attitudes have changed.

“When we started the project it was not easy to persuade people to use the briquettes – the majority of the people were against it – but with time we are now seeing people buying in large quantities, especially women who operate restaurants here in town,” says John Irungu, project manager at NAWASSCO.

The company now produces three tons of briquettes every month, but they are yet to increase the production to serve increasing demand.

To cater to the new interest, Nakuru Water Sanitation and Sewerage Company is planning to sponsor landlords in low-income earning areas to construct 6,000 special toilets where human waste can be easily collected to curb the shortage – before another cooking fuel crisis hits the women of Nakuru.

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