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Kenya: Industrial Designer Turning Biomass Waste Into Briquettes

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The memory of visiting her grandmother’s small hut, which was almost always filled with acrid smoke from firewood is what would, years later, motivate 29-year-old Chebet Lesan to look for alternative sources of fuel that were more efficient and safe for the user as well as the environment.

From a young age, Chebet enjoyed building things, and as a result, was drawn to art and science, thoroughly enjoying Do-It-Yourself projects. When she grew up, drawing from her childhood experience, she begun to think about how to turn around Kenya’s firewood problem into a sustainable green business.

The harmful smoke emitted by the wood and charcoal that is burned in traditional stoves and open fires claims four million lives every year around the world. On an ecological level, the timber required to make the millions of tonnes of charcoal that Kenya consumes each year has led to mass deforestation – a loss of 310,000 hectares in the years spanning 2000 to 2017.

This knowledge is what drove Chebet to start a company, BrightGreen Energy, which produces fuel briquettes made of post-harvest biomass waste. This waste comes from farmers who have no use for it, and would typically burn it off in the open air.

“We recycle farm waste (biomass), into energy efficient fuel blocks suitable for cooking and heating,” she told Powering SMEs.

Chebet is a graduate of industrial design from the University of Nairobi, who furthered her studies in business supply chain management at Rutgers University in New Jersey besides studying leadership at the University of Cambridge.

BrightGreen Energy’s mission is to provide affordable, clean, safe, and eco-friendly biomass briquettes for low income earning households in Kenya.

“We have developed a distribution network of women who are product ambassadors and distributors within informal communities,” she explains.

By upcycling this farm waste, a mix of various materials including sawdust, rice husks and sugarcane husks, BrightGreen produces a range of smokeless briquettes under the brand name MOTO, “fire” in Swahili.

“Building an investable business and a strong efficient team have been very tough – factors which have been fundamental to our business are our resilience and survival,” she explains.

BrightGreen started with a capital injection of Sh500,000 which it used to develop its own machinery. It has since grown its production outfit which employs 10 full-time production personnel with a daily output of 3 tons of fuel daily. A kilo of fuel retails at between Sh35 to Sh55. Their customers include industries, homes, farmers and restaurants.

An ardent supporter of tech that uplifts underserved communities, Chebet has been honoured with multiple awards of excellence, including Queen’s Young Leaders, Australia Award Fellowship 2016, Sh33 million in Jack Ma’s Africa Business Heroes’ award in 2020, and the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

She as well received the Clean Cooking Alliance Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2018 and the Cartier Women’s Fellowship in 2019.

“Women are the biggest users of cooking energy in households, and we are working to bring them into our value chain,” she says.

“My sense of duty comes from speaking up for African women and young African entrepreneurs, sharing my experiences in running a startup in a developing country, and the unique set of challenges that come with it,” she says.

Chebet has been privileged to share her vision on several global platforms including United Nations General Assembly 2019 in New York, the WTO Public Forum in Geneva in 2021, as well as the UN Sustainable Energy for All Forum 2018 in Lisbon.

To take MOTO to market, BrightGreen partners with women micro-entrepreneurs running individual kiosks. Chebet’s idea came to her during a community-based innovation summit at Mount Kilimanjaro, where the forests at the foot of its slopes have been all been cut down for firewood over the years.