Beneath the succession of brown rusty rooftops in Kibera slums, home to hundreds of thousands of Nairobi city residents, women voices pierce the air.
From a distance, one can hear occasional laughter, snatches of conversation, laboured breathing, and hasty movements of people at work.
A closer look reveals a group of about six women. Some are bending while others are down on their knees, with all hands rigorously making dough out of some black solid mass.
“This is a mixture of charcoal dust, soil and water. We want to bind it and make charcoal briquettes,” says Felistas Asiko, a mother of four, who like the others surrounding her, earns a living from selling the fuel.
Ms Asiko says that she initially sold maize but gave up after incurring losses regularly.
“However, since I joined this briquette making business, I have never looked back. My husband died but I can still afford rent, buy food, pay school fees and take good care of my children,” she says.
Ms Asiko represents a grim section of urban dwellers that are slowly embracing the briquette business, and consequently reaping the associated benefits.
“These briquettes enjoy a ready market as their cost is much lower compared to other sources of energy – charcoal and kerosene – that are used by most slum dwellers,” she says.
In addition, the widow says that they can never run out of charcoal dust, the main raw material for making the briquettes, since charcoal is still widely used in the city.
Indeed, a 2002 study conducted by the Ministry of Energy showed that charcoal is the principal fuel that provides energy for 82 per cent of urban households in Kenya.
This trend is similar in neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia where dependence on charcoal for cooking in urban areas is at 80 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.
In Nairobi alone residents use 700 tonnes of charcoal per day. Out of this, about 88 tonnes of charcoal dust are produced daily as a result of breakages during transportation and while handling them. The dust is often found at retail and wholesale stands where charcoal is sold. And this is expected to significantly increase due to population growth and rapid rate of urbanisation in the country.
Due to the magnitude produced, charcoal dust poses a major disposal challenge to traders. Some charcoal sellers push the dust into open drainage systems which get blocked and cause dirt to clog up.
In the slums, the effects are often catastrophic. Blocked trenches will push contaminated water and all manner of toxic waste into people’s houses, putting their health at risk.
Burning of charcoal dust is also not recommended as it releases toxic fumes that pollute the environment.
“Therefore, as women like Asiko collect charcoal dust for briquette making, they clean the environment in urban slums, and cushion their communities from hazardous waste,” explains Dr Mary Njenga, a consultant on biomass energy, environment and resilient livelihoods at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
Dr Njenga, who has conducted extensive research on briquettes in Kenya, adds that unlike normal charcoal, briquettes burn without smoke and dangerous emissions.
Consequently, they dramatically reduce indoor air pollution, a major cause of respiratory diseases that cause about 400,000 annual deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
Just like most slum dwellers, 54-year-old Margaret Nekesa lives with her granddaughter — Kyla Otieno — in a six-by-six metres room without proper ventilation.
“I adhered to advice from health officials and started using briquettes when Kyla was young. She’s now two and I am glad that she never suffered from pneumonia and other breathing problems like most children here,” she says.
Dr Njenga notes that the charcoal briquettes have the potential of boosting income earnings in the already thriving charcoal industry in Kenya.
According to ICRAF, about 2.4 million tonnes of charcoal are traded in Kenya annually, with more than 80 per cent of that happens in towns. This generates revenue for the country and creates employment.
In spite of the profits generated, charcoal traders still incur losses of about 15 per cent due to charcoal dust produced, which often go to waste because it cannot be sold in most parts of Kenya,
But in cities like Nairobi, charcoal vendors generate additional income by selling the dust to women and youths engaged in the briquette making business.
“They give us the raw material, which we mix with paper or soil and make charcoal briquettes for sale,” says 18-year-old Joseph Mwai who lives in Kahawa Soweto, another informal settlement in Nairobi.
The youth says that he makes a profit of about Sh300 daily from selling the charcoal briquettes. “I only had primary school education. But the money I get here has enabled me to pay fees and comfortably pursue secondary school education,” says Mr Mwai.
His colleague, Esther Wangari, says that due to the high rate of unemployment in Nairobi, most idle youths turn to drug abuse and engage in crime. “Yet they can also come together and begin making briquettes. This will keep them busy, generate income and give them hope in life,” she says.
Ms Wangari embarked on the charcoal briquette business after completing secondary school. She is now able to pay college fees for an accounting course she is pursuing.
The briquette making enterprise is therefore, creating employment for urban residents where the rate of unemployment is at a high of 40 per cent.
In her recently published study entitled Implications of Charcoal Briquette Produced by Local Communities on Livelihoods and Environment in Kenya, Dr Njenga notes that monthly incomes from sales of charcoal briquettes by community groups can reach a high of Sh141,680 during dry seasons and Sh179,200 during the wet seasons.
Back in Kibera slums, Jennifer Aoko, member of a women’s group that makes charcoal briquettes for a living, says that the business gives them a sense of self-worth.
“We no longer just sit back and wait for our husbands to give us money. Now we can also contribute to the wellbeing of our families, make savings and lend each other during hard financial times,” she says.
Such groups also provide the required social support to women in urban centres, where individualism thrives and most people tend to keep to themselves. As these women meet daily to make briquettes, they share problems and console each other in times of difficulty.
Due to the soaring costs of charcoal and kerosene in towns, briquettes are a favourite to a majority of people who can access them. Many describe them as efficient and affordable.
Actually, tests conducted by Dr Njenga revealed that with briquettes, it costs just Sh3 to cook a traditional meal of maize and beans for a standard household of five people. This is way cheaper than cooking the same meal with charcoal or kerosene which would cost Sh26 and Sh45 respectively.
“Whereas a two-kilogramme tin of charcoal costs Sh50, a briquette of similar quantity will only cost me only Sh5. So I save a lot,” says Jackeline Anyango, a Kibera resident.
Ms Anyango adds that compared to charcoal which burns for about two hours in a jiko (cook stove), briquettes lasts for four hours. “Therefore, I can cook what I want without worrying about fuel costs,” she says.
Dr Njenga notes that this widens the community’s dietary options and improves their nutrition and health.
Aside from providing cooking energy, Dr Njenga that the charcoal briquettes are also used by poultry breeding firms to warm the eggs before they hatch and thereafter to keep the chicks warm. “This is definitely cheaper than using electricity,” she says.
The briquettes, she says, can also be used in factories to cure tea during processing.
“This would provide an affordable alternative to the often used wood fuel and save trees,” says Dr Njenga.
Despite these immense advantages of briquettes, not many people produce or use them in Kenya.
“We need a clear action plan to sensitise the public on the benefits of briquettes and train communities on how to produce them,” says Amimo Odongo, environmental expert at Kenya Mazingira Institute.
He adds that the Uwezo Fund recently launched by the government for women and youth enterprises should target sustainable projects like briquette making whose returns are immediate.
Dr Njenga adds that with sufficient resources, the briquette making business will grow and meet demands of the Kenyan market. “And this will also promote the country’s economic growth,” she concludes.