“One of the best ways to understand the challenges to development in Uganda,” says Vincent Kienzler, “was to actually develop an organization in Uganda.” And so Kienzler and fellow Frenchman David Gerard, who met while studying toward master’s degrees in international development in Kampala, Uganda, launched an experimental sustainable-energy startup that became Green Bio Energy.
Two years in, Green Bio Energy (GBE) has 40 employees and has saved its customers $330,000 off of their utility bills—this in a country where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 per day, a quarter of which is spent on cooking fuels. GBE replaces these fuels—primarily charcoal and wood—with briquettes made out of organic materials like corn cobs and food waste. In addition to the financial savings, the briquettes burn longer and much cleaner than charcoal, which is a major contributor to respiratory illnesses, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. And since most charcoal in the area comes from trees, GBE could help reduce deforestation in Uganda.
Here we have an opportunity for people to save money and use renewable energy, while at the same time improving their health.
“It’s important to raise awareness about deforestation,” says Kienzler, “because once it’s ruined, there’s no going back. Here we have an opportunity for people to save money and use renewable energy, while at the same time improving their health.”
Gerard got the idea for GBE in 2010, when he noticed families making charcoal from organic waste and asked them about the process, which involved superheating the organic matter in an oxygen-free space. The resulting material is carbon-rich, hence the name of the process: carbonization. Gerard shared this with Kienzler—an engineer by training—who started building a prototype mechanized briquette press in his backyard. By January 2011, they were carbonizing organic waste and selling briquettes in surrounding communities. Armed with a $60,000 grant from a French utility and a $25,000 grant from MIT’s Harvest Fuel Initiative, they refined their process and, in 2012, incorporated GBE and moved to a space about 20 miles outside of Kampala to begin full-scale production.
To collect waste for fuel, GBE buys carbonized organic waste from surrounding communities and transport it back to their central facility to be ground, pressed and dried. “It’s not very technical,” says Kienzler. “But it’s an organizational challenge. You need to manage a lot of workers because it’s a labor-intensive job. You need to address the price of the charcoal. You can’t sell it at a very high price, so you can’t use a very complex machine.”
One kilogram (2.2 lbs) of Green Bio’s briquettes (called Briquetti) costs about $0.35, or 30 to 40 percent less than traditional charcoal. And since Bruquetti also burn longer, there are extra savings. GBE is currently producing about a ton of briquettes per day, which they sell both to commercial distributors and directly into surrounding communities.
To date GBE has generated more than $160,000 in revenue, and Kienzler and Gerard plan to hire an additional five employees by year’s end. They are also looking to raise $200,000 in funding to expand operations and distribution. And they are rolling out new products, like their high-efficiency Eco Stoves, which can run on less charcoal. They estimate an Eco Stove burning Briquetti can save the typical user about $53 per year while also keeping 1,650 lbs (750 kg) of CO2 out of the atmosphere.