The Gatecrasher

I first met Peter Kamau at an international cookstove conference in May 2012. He had heard about the event and taken time off from his job at a carwash in town to find out what it was about. Peter was looking for business ideas to raise funds to support an NGO, and wondered if making improved stoves might be an option. He and a number of other residents of Dandora, a very poor area of Nairobi, had set up a charity to try to create a future for unemployed young people. Their long-term aim was to build a gym and give youngsters the chance to develop sporting skills. But they first needed to generate funds.

Peter wandered into the stoves conference undetected by the organisers and was enjoying lunch when I met him. I was intrigued. After talking for an hour we concluded that briquettes and fireless cookers were the best options for a project as they are not technical and require little capital. Fireless cookers are baskets filled with insulating material into which a container of heated food is placed. The pot retains heat in the basket and the food continues to cook. They can be made from simple materials like waste paper. I bought two from another workshop participant for Peter to try out and agreed to put him in touch with someone who could provide training in briquette making. As a result of this members of the Dandora NGO travelled up to Nyeri to be trained by a briquette maker there, bought a manual press and started making and selling briquettes.

I visited Peter on a Saturday morning the following September. Dandora is a notorious part of Nairobi’s Eastlands, rife with crime, a rubbish-strewn area of dirt roads and haphazard development. Kenyan friends don’t like to go there. The main roads are full of matatus (minibuses) and boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) vying for space with hand carts loaded with vegetables, metal gates, steel cable. Horns blare. It’s hot and dusty. Piles of stinking refuse line the road, people picking through them for plastic containers and bottles which can be sold to the Chinese for recycling.

Peter met me near his home. Over a soda he and another committee member Paul, an accountant, talked me through their progress. As well as making briquettes Peter had started a ‘hotel’ – a small food stall serving tea, porridge, beans for lunch, all cooked using briquettes. We paid a brief visit to Peter’s home, a short walk away. A man was extending a drainage ditch down the middle of the dirt road, heaving spadefuls of black stinking soil to one side as he dug. He shouted a greeting as we passed. Two of Peter’s daughters, aged around five or six, were dancing about in ballet costumes. We entered the high-walled compound through a metal gate . His mother was watching TV in the small sitting room crammed with furniture. His wife emerged from the bedroom, children clustered around her. Peter extracted various documents from a briefcase – registration documents for the NGO, a constitution – wanting to demonstrate to me that it was a legitimate group.

We drove to the site of the briquette making – or as close as we could get. A large puddle occupying the width of the road finally blocked our progress and we got out and walked. This area is called Baraka, and is a new development on the edge of town. Newly built houses and vacant plots lined the muddy streets. The group secured land here because it was more affordable. ‘People here are poor and in need of cheaper cooking fuel,’ Peter told me. ‘We could have many customers.’ We passed a charcoal dealer, and several roadside food sellers, their jikos filled with glowing charcoal – potential customers for the briquettes.

The group’s activities were based in a building on the corner of a crossroads. Three young men were preparing food in the ‘hotel’ – a pan of beans boiling away on a large jiko and stew on a smaller one. A square, iron grill for barbecuing meat had been set up. This was Peter’s latest idea. He wanted his wife to come and manage the ‘hotel’.

Briquette production took place in a back room and in the yard behind the ‘hotel’. They were buying sacks of charcoal dust from local charcoal dealers, crushing it through a sieve to a fine powder, mixing it with a little soil dug from a local spot for free, and extruding the resulting mixture through the press to produce dense, compact cylinders of a dark brown colour. The soil binds the char dust. The briquettes were dried at the premises of another committee member not far away and are then bagged for sale. Customers included a local school and a few food stalls. The group was making only what it could sell – three 90kg sacks a week. With the press they had they could be making ten sacks a week. But they had made good progress in the few months since they acquired the machine.

We talked about a sales strategy and potential sources of organic waste which could be carbonized – an alternative to using charcoal dust. Discarded corn cobs littering the streets outside were perfect raw material. The group was keen to learn more about how to carbonize and I promised to find someone local who could teach them. Competition for charcoal dust is growing in Nairobi. There are many briquette-making businesses starting up. Waste materials like corn cobs, cardboard, paper and sawdust can be carbonized, but this is challenging to do efficiently at low cost. Large quantities of char dust need to be acquired to keep pace with the briquette production. The feedstock needs to be dry. Space is often a limiting factor for small informal businesses like Peter’s and the small drum kilns commonly used produce a lot of smoke. Peter seemed confident that they would be able to find enough charcoal dust, at least for the time being.

The briquettes they were producing were good. We talked about target markets, and getting a sales person working on commission. Peter said he knew a woman, Wanjiru, who would be good. Briquettes are a niche product. They will never substitute completely for charcoal and are not well suited to household cooking. They burn more slowly than charcoal and can be hard to light. Where a cook has to keep food or water warm for a long time, or is stewing something which takes time to cook, briquettes are good value. For a quick source of heat, to make tea for example, they are not a viable option. Briquettes are ideal for space heating, much needed in Kenya’s highlands. Properly made, and targeted at the right customers, briquettes have a market. Poultry farms like them because they provide the steady heat needed for chick rearing. A successful briquette businesses needs to find the type of customers who will appreciate the product.

Back at my hotel I worked on a basic financial model showing how they might grow sales and invest some of the profits in additional machines. I emailed it to Paul the accountant. After a few weeks he emailed back a revised series of projections they had worked on. They had developed a plan to ramp up production and sales week by week until they reached capacity.

In April 2013 I was in Nairobi and planned to meet up with Peter and the group but crossed communications and a busy schedule meant we missed each other. Things were going well, he assured me. Two months later I was back and Peter came to the office one morning. I wanted to introduce him to colleagues who would be in a position to give ongoing help.

‘We are producing 10 bags a week,’ Peter tells us. ‘Sometimes we have to work into the night to keep up with demand. It is very tiring using the manual machine, it hurts the back.’ He has a team of around ten working regularly in the production area. Wanjiru is scouting for new customers, paid on commission. Paul, the accountant, manages the business on a volunteer basis, as one of the NGO committee members. To have progressed from nothing to producing and selling 2 tonnes of briquettes a month is quite something. Apart from the small amount of advice I and a colleague have provided and the training they received they have done all this by themselves using their own funds.

‘We need an electrically powered machine,’ Peter says. ‘We are saving for that. Otherwise we cannot keep up with the demand.’ He’s seen a machine for KES30,000 (US$375) in the local jua kali market. My colleague advises that this may not be very good quality as normally motorised presses cost a lot more than this. He suggests they look at it together and advises Peter to test it before buying to see what quality of briquettes it can produce.

Because of the scale of the business, Peter’s group qualifies for possible enrolment in a programme we have just started aimed at assisting small briquette businesses to move to a higher level of operation. The entrepreneurial flair and hard work displayed by the group speak strongly in their favour. Without this kind of determination and application businesses have little chance of success.

My colleague asks if the group has any affiliation with local politicians. Peter says no, they tried with an earlier idea they had but were not successful. ‘It is best to avoid politicians,’ my colleague advises. ‘When they get involved it can really mess you up.’

We talk about the NGO’s aim of providing sports facilties in Dandora. ‘I used to be a sportsman,’ Peter tells us. ‘When they put up estates in the past there were always some facilities. Now they just build and there is nothing. The playing fields are sold and built on.’ Before they started the briquette business the NGO’s idea of creating a gym was just a dream. Now it’s beginning to look like it could become a reality. Peter is already thinking about making improved stoves. They have some way to go with their briquette venture. But perhaps in the not too distant future young people in Dandora will, through sport, find purpose in their lives.