(IAP ’12) Kevin Kung ’14

February 6: Not kwaheri but baadaye

Our last day in Nairobi began with shopping for lots of food with Daniel again—we bought 6 kg of ugali, 3 kg of meat, and lots of greens and vegetables (including our favorite sukuma wiki, or kale).

We set the large charcoal in the Carolina for Kibera office to use, and soon with the help of Mama Jen, Botul, as well as other field officers, a meal was eagerly being cooked.

At the same time, we also had a final meeting with Hillary, Norbert, and Medina, where we discussed what we accomplished during this trip, as well as what is coming next. We are glad to have made progress on many different themes: (1) prototyping the charcoal-making technology in the urban environment, and identifying specific improvements (less smoke, an efficient way of drying organic waste) to be worked on in the spring semester; (2) tracing the charcoal supply chain from its urban end to its rural source, so that we have a good understanding of the stake and the profit margin in the charcoal trade; (3) interviewing the households regarding their fuel preferences and trade-offs, including a session where they got to try cooking with the taka-makaa briquettes, so that we understand how exactly taka-makaa briquettes may be able to serve their needs; (4) establishing lasting collaborations, in particular with the University of Nairobi; and (5) seeing the current alternatives (fuel briquettes) in the fields, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as current efforts by other groups (such as re:char) at pyrolysis.

Moving forward, we will work hard in the spring term to improve the charcoal kiln design to reduce the smoke emission and to incorporate a good way of drying organic waste, as well as to come up with a briquetting technique that has the optimal calorific value, as well as minimal smoke and carbon monoxide emission. On the business end, we will crunch through the numbers we collect in order to figure out a business model that makes sense. We will also take a closer look at the environmental impacts, such as the number of trees and the greenhouse gas emissions that can be saved by the Takachar project—this will hopefully help us make a stronger case for our project. At the same time, we will also be busy communicating our work with our community partners in Kenya and get their feedback as well (especially people near the Rumuruti Forest, who are planning to scale up the charcoal production process in the soon future).

At about 2 p.m., the food was ready, and everyone in the CFK office had hearty shares:

In particular, there was so much ugali that it was almost a cake:

Kevin also spent the afternoon initiating a social mobilization program, in which the CFK staff members get a chance to sign up at the MIT IDEAS/Global Challenge website and help support the Takachar team.

At last, the time of parting comes, and we said goodbye to our friends and collaborators in the CFK office. But we are confident that given our work over IAP, we will soon return once again!

February 4: Judgement Day (B): Chiromo Lab

Having obtained some extremely valuable feedback from the households regarding our taka-makaa briquettes in the morning, in the afternoon Kevin carried 10 remaining briquettes to University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus to do a more quantitative test.

First off, we realized that even though the briquettes had been drying in the sun since Monday and had felt very dry, it was actually not dry enough. The moisture meter revealed a moisture content of 25% in the briquettes. Typically wood charcoal has a moisture content of around 7%. Especially given the thickness of our briquettes, it may be advisable to dry them for a week or more. But we did not have time now, so we just have to admit that some energy from the taka-makaa briquettes would be lost driving out this moisture from the briquettes (which might also make the briquettes smokier).

After loading the 10 briquettes on a small standard jiko (KCJ – Ranen), we lit using firewood from the bottom (because pouring paraffin on it might cause it to disintegrate):

A pot of water of almost 3 L was put onto the stove and the temperature (as well as CO and smoke emissions) monitored in real time:

It rose very slowly. For example, while normal wood charcoal would bring water to a boil in around 23 minutes in the same jiko, the temperature rose only from 54 to 67 degrees Celsius in 10 minutes in our case.

The pot of water never boiled; the highest temperature achieved was 76.4 degrees Celsius. However, we were very surprised that after that, the taka-makaa briquettes kept the temperature at that level (around 73-76 degrees Celsius) for an extended period of time.

Indeed, when we later offloaded the water, we realized that the taka-makaa briquettes were still quite hot, except that the briquettes were covered by so thick a layer of asht ath the heat was not released efficiently:

According to Dr. Kithinji, even though our current iteration of briquettes could not really cook food efficiently (especially in the morning, when the households are generally very short of time to get to work), it could nonetheless keep cooked food warm over an extended period of time. Furthermore, if someone is sick in the house, thiese briquettes could also be used to warm the house for a long time, and would be very suitable in particular because it released so little carbon monoxide:

While initially, the carbon monoxide level did exceed the safety level a bit, this fared much better than wood charcoal. According to another data set for wood charcoal on the same jiko, the average CO level is around 120 ppm.

Finally, we also obtained valuable feedback on the smoke emission data of our taka-makaa briquettes:

The y-axis units are in mg/m^3. For reference, wood charcoal typically has peak emission of about 0.2 mg/m^3, and firewood, around 2 mg/m^3. Given this morning’s noxious smoke in the households, we are actually quite surprised that the smoke emission measured in the lab would be so low. Perhaps a replicate experiment would be needed to confirm this.

Here are some other data recorded during the testing session, if anyone is quantitatively inclined:

Air temperature: 29.4 degrees Celsius
Dry weight of pot: 483 g
Weight of container for charcoal: 245 g
Local boiling point: 94 degrees Celsius

Weight of stove: 3974 g
Weight of stove + fuel: 4253 g
Maximum temperature achieved: 76.4 degrees Celsius
Surface temperature of ths stove: 58.1 degrees Celsius

Start time of cooking: 15:39
End time of cooking: 16:53

Initial weight of charcoal: 279 g
Final weight of charcoal (excluding ash): 165 g
Change in weigh of charcoalt: 114 g

Beginning weight of water: 2983 g
Final weight of water: 2736 g
Change in weight of water: 247 g

February 3: Judgement Day (A)- A Test of Our Work

Today we called a focus group of charcoal users in the village of Soweto to test our taka-makaa (literally waste charcoal in Kiswahili). We spent the morning gathering cooking materials: 2 kg of meat, 4 kg of ugali, sukuma wiki (kale), tomatoes, and onions: all the nutrients two growing boys could need. We then brought them into a household in Soweto to start cooking at about 10:30 a.m. With bated breath we watched as some of our agricultural charcoal briquettes (made from maize remains, and some carbonized orange peels, etc.), made from waste found in Kibera, was put to the test.

First off, we asked the focus group how they perceived the charcoal before it was used:

They said that the taka-makaa was better than the normal wood charcoal because it did not produce as much dust on their hands, but worse in the sense that it was much lighter and therefore would not burn as long.

We then loaded up a large jiko, which accommodated about 26 briquettes:

Kevin carefully lights the jiko

The jiko was then lit

Kevin demonstrating the wrong way to make ugali

It was a long while, but the pot of water was eventually brought to a boil after about 45 minutes (slow compared to normal charcoal). Then the women started adding ugali, and after some magical stirring and flipping and turning, the powder hardened. But the 4 kg of ugali was cooked using the taka-makaa briquettes—we had to add about 8 more to sustain the heat! This was a great achievement!
Then the cooking of nyama (meat) began:

After the meat was added, we were told that the cooking would last until all the water boiled away. At this time we ran out of the taka-makaa briquettes (we only had about 50 of them), we cooked the rest of the meal using normal charcoal (about half a tin can). The wood charcoal, in contrast, was much more quickly at cooking, but also gave more uncomfortable heat in the house. Finally, cooking sukuma was quick, and took about 10 minutes. After the meal was finished, we all sat down and everyone had hearty portions:

We were told that our charcoal was slower cooking- this meal took 3 hours with the taka-makaa instead of 2 hours with traditional charcoal. While this slower cooking might make for better-tasting ugali, it is not a desirable characteristic, especially if the households are short on time (especially in the morning). We then continued with the focus group, asking opinions of the charcoal after it was used. They told us that because of the burning qualities, it would not fetch nearly as much in the markets as traditional charcoal. Finally, we were told that this meal would have taken about 150 Ksh of wood charcoal equivalent, which was roughly equivalent in our case to about 50 taka-makaa briquettes plus 25 Ksh of wood charcoal.
This focus group has provided us with invaluable information in regards to our charcoal. We have seen some of the desires of the customers and how we can better change our charcoal. As we said before, there is much work to do in the spring semester before we try to implement a pilot program.

Onions being cooked with taka-makaa

January 31: Households’ hard decisions

By this time, all the household surveys have been completed. We talked to 30 interviewees in 4 villages (1 in Gatwekera, 10 in Makina, 10 in Soweto West, and 9 in Kianda). Care was taken so that a variety of people were interviewed, ranging from restaurants to households, females to males, large houses to small houses, and people who mainly use firewood to people who mainly use paraffin/gas. The interviews, each lasting about 20-45 minutes, were quite exhausting, but by engaging the interviewees in how they make their fuel decisions, we learned a lot about the fuel choices and economy in a typical family in Kibera, and this will immensely help our project.

We have not gone through the data to draw out the quantitative aspects yet, but for now we can state the qualitative aspects—some salient trends that have emerged from our interviews.

In brief, a typical household with a total income of about 300 Ksh/day can spend a stunning 150 Ksh/day on cooking fuel, amongst which 100 Ksh/day can be attributed to charcoal!!Just think that about what it is like if a third of your family income goes to charcoal! So the consensus is easily reached that charcoal is the most commonly used cooking fuel, with more than half of the households use it on a regular basis. But as the fuel prices are expensive, these households are also aware of other types of fuel, and are often found juggling amongst different types of fuel in order to economize the cooking costs. The most common types of fuel are:

– Charcoal (makaa): The large 90 kg bags come in trucks from places such as Narok, Kamba Land, and Namanga. One bag is split into about 30-40 tin cans of charcoal, weighing about 1.5-2 kg. The tin cans are priced differently (35, 40, or 50 Ksh) depending on the sizes of the pieces of charcoal contained therein. The larger the charcoal pieces, the higher the price. Typically households go for the 40Ksh or 50Ksh tin cans, and indeed they show an overwhelming preference for larger pieces of charcoal because these last longer when lit and can cook more stuff at one setting. Charcoal is used in jikos (cooking stoves, typically with a metal casing and ceramic interior, costing about 250-500 Ksh apiece) indoors, and produces moderate amount of smoke. One tin can of charcoal can last about one full meal, so for a household that cooks two meals a day with charcoal, about 80-100 Ksh/day can be spent on charcoal. One danger of charcoal is carbon monoxide: it is a fairly common story that some people light a jiko indoors and then go to sleep, and never wake up again.

– Paraffin (mafuta taa): Perhaps the second most common cooking fuel, especially in more affluent areas such as Makina and Kianda. Paraffin is sold for about 70-80 Ksh per liter, though the price can fluctuate wildly. Most houses buy small bits of paraffin (e.g. in packets of 20-50 Ksh) at a time to cook one meal. Because paraffin is a little more expensive than charcoal, the household typically reserves it for cooking lighter meals (breakfast and perhaps lunch), where dumping an entire load of charcoal onto a jiko would be wasteful as the cooking would be completed before that much charcoal is completed used up. Using paraffin requires a different stove design (known locally as a “stove” instead of a “jiko”). Paraffin can be slightly more hazardous than charcoal, and indeed one household told us that their previous house burned down because of paraffin. In the rainy season, paraffin may be comparatively preferred relative to charcoal because charcoal becomes more expensive.

– Charcoal/clay mix (mawe): This is a cheap fuel source made by mixing scrap charcoal pieces with clay and water, and left in the sun to dry. This is produced and used mainly in the poorer neighborhoods within Gatwekera and Soweto, with some households making the switch from charcoal to mawe in the last year due to the rising fuel costs. To cook, a layer of charcoal is required at the bottom to fuel the burning, and another layer of mawe is located at the top layer. While regular charcoal is still required, now a tin can of charcoal can last three times as long. The downside is that mawe takes a long time to cook (we have not quantified how long this is), and cooking takes a lot more time (though we have not been able to quantify how long yet with a proper calorimetry test). In Makina and Kianda, using mawe is almost unheard of: when asked why, people either say that it is not available in their neighborhood, or that it takes a long time to make mawe, or that they simply have never tried the fuel.

– Firewood (kuni): This fuel source can be collected from the nearby Jamhuri Forest beyond Kianda, and is often sold in head-loads of about 10-20 pieces. Households either buy firewood from vendors or have circulating vendors who bring it to the home. Due to the smoke, most houses that do cook with firewood do so outside.

Many households have a preferred vendor, and when asked why, a prominent reason is that the vendors are able to give them credit when they cannot afford to pay for the fuel.

During the last few interviews, we were also able to show the households a sample of the taka-makaa briquette that we made out of carbonized maize cobs and husks. Given the households’ overwhelming preference for heavy charcoal pieces, one reaction we received was that the taka-makaa piece is large, but feels light. And for this reason the households may perceive the taka-makaa briquettes to be of inferior quality, unless we can increase the density of our briquettes.

Because the information we received is so valuable, we also plan to do a focus group, in which we invite a household to cook on a normal jiko using our taka-makaa briquettes, and they will have a chance to give us feedback regarding how they feel about the burning quality, smell, heating speed, duration of heating, as well as other relevant characteristics in order to improve our product to make it more competitive in the charcoal market.

January 24: Kenya’s energy landscape

While Dr. Kithinji showed Kevin some wonderful facilities at the Chiromo Campus, we also had some meaningful discussion about the different energy alternatives at Kenya’s disposal. Since this topic appeared in the reviews we got from our team’s first IDEAS scope statement submission, I thought that we should spend some time considering these alternatives.

Dr. Kithinji was a little skeptical about using waste as cooking fuel. His concerns are twofold: firstly, waste can be perceived as something dirty and unsuitable to be brought into the kitchen. Secondly, nature has its own way of handling organic waste via decomposition, so why bother. While we admit that such concerns are valid, we can also make some counterstatements. The extent of the first concern will be revealed in an interview with the different households in Kibera. But in general, if our process is successful, we will not aim to bring raw organic waste directly into the kitchen. Rather, the waste will be dried and pyrolyzed until its original form is no longer recognizable. As to the second concern, we have indeed seen alternative ways of handling organic waste by other youth groups, such as making manure via decomposition. However, such manure has very limited market in Nairobi, and these youth groups often do not have the wherewithals to transport the manure to the rural farms, where it may prove to be of greater value. In addition, the making of manure takes many months, and the amount of land required to achieve this at a larger scale is prohibitive.

We also discussed ethanol production from molasses (sugar waste). According to Dr. Kithinji, there are two areas of Kenya currently doin this: Muhoron in Western Kenya (about 70 km from Kisumu), as well as E.A. Spetre near Lake Victoria (again near Kisumu). Ethanol, however, is by no means a cheap fuel for the poor. Currently specialized ethanol stoves cost about 2000 Ksh (about 25 USD). Practical Action has been trying some improved ethanol stoves in Kisumu, though according to Dr. Kithinji, this has made limited progress so far.

Regarding agricultural waste such as maize cobs and stalks in the rural areas, it is indeed possible to cook food using such waste as fuel. While smoke emission is a problem, this can be reduced using improved stoves (or at least ones with chimneys). However, such improved stoves are yet another investment that may not be affordable to the poor households. Furthermore, according to our interviews in Rumuruti, maize harvest is done once a year, and the supply of maize cobs, when used as a fuel on a three-stone fire, lasts only about 3 months. So the fuel is at best seasonal.

With the current charcoal shortage and the initiation of coal mining in Kenya, some people are eyeing using coal as the cooking fuel, which according to Dr. Kithinji is not a good proposition. Beside the environmental problems, coal has as much risk of carbon monoxide poisoning as charcoal, and may also contain radioactive materials.

Solar cooking and lighting is another alternative, though currently the cost for photovoltaic panels (for electricity) is prohibitively expensive, and solar cookers call for a drastic change in cooking behavior (which is very difficult to take place within a short timescale). It remains to be seen whether and when the PV panel costs will come down sufficiently enough for this technology to be accessible in the developing world.

Dr. Kithinji is also trying to extract oil from jatropha, an inedible plant. Such oil can be used for lighting (though not usually for cooking). There is also an invasive plant called mathenga that grows in arid land such as Turkana and Northeastern parts. However, the use of such plants could be difficult as transportation could be a challenge.

January 18: Making a charcoal press

On the second day after we arrived in Salama, Dixon brought us to the local blacksmith to have a sample charcoal press made. We carried the D-Lab documentation with us, but the concept of how the charcoal press works is somewhat hard to explain. We would have saved time if we had brought a ready-made charcoal press with us.

The blacksmith belongs to the informal sector (jua kali), and he made our press completely from scrap metal and pipes:

We were a bit worried about how accurately the blacksmith could fit the inner plates that would go inside the charcoal press. But even with the most elementary techniques, he managed very well:

This photo shows the blacksmith welding the different parts of the charcoal press together:

And this is the final operational product:

The press could do with some more sanding and smoothening, but overall we were very happy with the result. The final price? 450 Ksh (about 5.5 USD). Compare that with the 1000 Ksh quote we got in Kibera.

January 18: A small charcoal trial

We were lucky that the Rumuruti region has just undergone the maize harvest in December, and because January happened to be the dry season, maize cobs and husks turned out to be widely available:

So on our second day at Dixon’s place, we were able to do a small charcoal demonstration in a one-gallon tin can:

Upon lighting the corn husks at the bottom, there were some problems and the smoke stopped coming—probably because it was early in the morning and some of the biomass was still wet from the cold dew

We tried another batch, and this time, we got a much more substantial smoke emission:

Eventually the biomass bursted into flames as it was being charred:

After a while, we covered the biomass with an ad hoc metal plate, weighed down by stones:

The result was charred maize husks and cobs. Perhaps because of the small scale of the container, the heat was somewhat uneven and not all cobs were thoroughly carbonized at the core. But this small trial already convinced us that the agricultural charcoal probably can work here on a much larger scale, which we will give a try tomorrow in Salama as a public demonstration.

In fact, Dixon was so excited about the process that he went around the school collecting some metallic vegetable oil cans and was found already explaining the process to the villagers in Salama before we carried out a larger-scale demonstration:

January 18: Kitchens and stoves

While we stayed in Rumuruti, we conducted a few household interviews in Salama and Lorian concerning the cooking habits and fuel preferences:

While doing so, we also asked permission to see the households’ kitchen and take photos. Here are some interesting facts about the kitchens and stoves in the Rumuruti area.

A typical kitchen is a separate indoor structure that may have a window or two:

Charcoal is a common fuel locally, and is burned on a jiko, as in Nairobi:

This jiko costs about 250 Ksh locally (about 3 USD). Since jiko is a relatively mobile stove, it is not limited to the kitchen. Sometimes, for example, people also move a burning jiko into the living room to heat the house during cold mornings or evenings.

Firewood is another common fuel (probably more common than charcoal where cooking is concerned). Here is a typical three-stone stove inside a kitchen, with chapati being cooked:

Of course, when this is cooking is going on, a large amount of smoke is concocted in the kitchen:

Unlike the relatively consistently designed charcoal-burning jikos, the firewood-burning stoves come in some varieties. Here is another design:

And here is yet another more elaborate firewood stove, with the bottom opening for feeding the firewood, the square opening at the top for cooking, the left ledge for putting prepared food, and the right hole serving as a chimney for the smoke:

During busy times such as supper, it is not uncommon to find multiple stoves in action in the kitchen:

A few households still have a paraffin stove (costs about 1700 Ksh, or 21 USD), though because paraffin is so expensive nowadays, most of these stoves have fallen into disuse:

January 18: Setting the stage for Rumuruti

Rumuruti Forest, with an area of 55.65 square km (6366.9 Ha), is located about 20 km away from Nyahururu:

It is surrounded by various villages, such as Salama, Lorian, Gatundia, Melwa, Siron, Oljabet, Laichiri, and Mahienyo. The road connecting these villages is so bumpy that it is typically only accessible by motorbikes or donkey carts. It takes about 3 h by motorbike to encircle the forest by visiting these different villages.

Rumuruti Forest suffers from severe deforestation:

In fact, according to estimates by Green World Campaign, the forest will completely disappear in about 8-10 years if the current logging and charcoal-making activities in the forest continues. The Rumuruti Forest Association was set up to conserve this rapidly dwindling forest. In collaboration with the Green World Campaign, it involves various efforts such as researching, scouting for illegal charcoal-making activities, and creating alternative income-generating activities that do not involve destroying the forest (ecotourism is on the list). This is why there is so much interest in agricultural charcoal.

Our host was Dixon, a board member of the Rumuruti Forest Association. He is a well-respected member in Salama, and we stayed at his home. Jack, who brought us from Nairobi to Salama, is a volunteer with the Green World Campaign, but he is actually from Mombasa and this was actually only his second time to Rumuruti. This photo shows the four of us, from left to right, Dixon, Jacob, Jack, and Kevin:

While Salama is not the biggest village, it is the most familiar to us since we spent the most time there. There were various constructions, such as a windmill that pumps up water for distribution to the town:

There is also a dam for the cattle near the town:

Elephant is a significant problem in Salama as well as elsewhere in or near the forest. Elephants (and other wildlife) can be aggressive, so the local people advised us to avoid going into the forest from about 5 p.m. until about 8 a.m.

Elephants can also be a pest closer to home. According to Dixon, elephants destroyed some specific crops (such as cassava) so that the locals have stopped growing these. Here is a photo showing a damaged farm fence (probably due to a elephant):

Elephants also proved to be a nuisance in forest conservation, as they destroy protective fences around the forest as well as newly planted trees. This is why Dixon pushed so hard to construct an electric fence around the forest. While we walked around in the forest, we found elephant droppings and footprints to be very common. We also encountered elephant bones:

This probably came from a misadventuring elephant being killed by villagers.

On the second day of our arrival, we visited Peter, the chief of Salama, who had lunch with us, walked around with us (and the scouts) in the forest, and attended our charcoal demonstration in Salama. He also had a motorbike that proved very comfortable on bumpy roads.

We also met Jack, the chief of Lorian (about 30 minutes by motorbike from Salama). Here is a picture of him on the left, together with Kevin, entertaining some questions about the agricultural charcoal project from the Lorian villagers:

While visiting and talking to the villagers, we also were exposed to other potential projects beyond forest conservation. Dixon, for example, is interested in introducing better drip irrigation kits into the farms, and Kevin is of the opinion that some parts of Salama could benefit from a low-cost pump like a treadle pump. Likewise, the chief of Lorian mentioned his interest in introducing interlocking blocks, with which MIT’s D-Lab has had some institutional experience. The Rumuruti Forest Association is also hoping to roll in some more efficient cooking stoves (jiko) starting in February, and there may also be further works along this line of fuel efficiency and stove design. There are so many possibilities that this could almost make a self-contained D-Lab: Development trip for 5-6 students!

January 18: From Nairobi to Nyahururu

On Sunday, we met up with Jack at 9 a.m. at the Kencom bus station and headed to the Rumuruti Forest near Nyahururu. The journey itself from Nairobi to Nyahururu was a great pleasure and deserves a piece of its own.

From Nairobi, we followed Uhuru Highway westwards into the suburbs. Then suddenly the houses and trees gave way to a spectacular view of the Great Rift Valley:

The bus made its way down into the Rift Valley from precarious cliffs. Then we were greeted by some pastoral scene:

There were cows and sheep and occasionally a wild zebra. Jack noted that the hills and plains used to be forest, but this has been cleared in the last few decades. We did, however, pass through some farms with well-managed wood lots.

Past Naivasha, we turned into a subsidiary road, which became bumpier, and Jacob hit his head on the ceiling multiple times. At last, at 1:30 p.m., we arrived in Nyahururu. Our next stage of transport was this:

However, just five minutes into the journey, one of the motorbikes broke down, so it had to be transported back to town:

So we sat by the roadside and waited. After about 20 minutes, we were allowed to continue. The next 45 minutes probably consisted of the bumpiest motorbike ride I have ever taken. It felt as though that all the major organs in my body have suffered some concussion. However, in the meanwhile, the rural scenery was beautiful:

Eventually we stopped in a village called Salama, our new home for the next few days:

January 14: Week 1 in review

This is our first week of work, and we have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people, both within and outside of CFK.

This week has been fundamental for us in establishing potential major partnerships. We met with several people outside of CFK, and some of them have demonstrated a marked interest in long-term work with us, or with the CFK:

– University of Nairobi FabLab: We met Dr. Kamau Gachigi, who had some collaboration with D-Lab in the past but he said that in recent years this has been stalled. He shows great interest in our charcoal project, and offers two potential collaborations: (1) students from University of Nairobi can also actively participate in the technical design of the charcoal-making process in parallel with D-Lab, thereby maintaining some technical expertise local in Nairobi, and (2) when we start our pilot project, we are welcome to make use of the FabLab. Amy Banzaert from D-Lab learned about this and is also very interested in Dr. Gachigi’s work with water filters made from activated carbon.

– Green World: Jack Menya works with Green World in forest conservation efforts, and mostly heard about Carolina for Kibera through us. This Friday he came to Nairobi and we introduced him to the CFK staff. He had a conversation with CFK’s Norbert on waste management-related issues, as Jack has been involved in similar waste management initiatives in Mombasa. Here is a picture of Norbert, Jack, Jacob, and Kevin wearing Green World t-shirts, taken against the Carolina for Kibera wall:

Jack told us that the visit to CFK was extraordinarily helpful to him and he planned on further visits to CFK in the hope of adopting some successful waste management initiatives. Jack will also accompany us to the Rumuruti Forest on Sunday, with several goals in mind:
(1) We hope to explore the charcoal supply chain at its source, where trees are being cut down, made into charcoal, and shipped to urban centers for sale; and
(2) Green World has shown a strong interest in the agricultural charcoal method, as they think it is a very promising way to protect the Rumuruti Forest, which they estimate will disappear in eight years if the current tree-logging trend continues.

– City Garbage Recyclers: This youth group in Eastlands is actively involved in waste management, and one aspect is the production of paper briquettes, which is being sold to about 100 households. We had a chance to see their briquette process and press (albeit broken at the moment).

We have also made contact with Kenyatta University’s Appropriate Technology Department (where there is significant work on fuel briquettes), as well as Sanergy (which is interested in turning human waste into biochar). Potential meetings will be arranged next week.

On Friday, we managed to gather the three key CFK players (Hillary, Norbert, and Medina) simultaneously into one room to discuss our work plan, and we think that there is a clear understanding of the major aspects that our project entails, as well as what CFK can do to facilitate the process. There is also a promise from CFK that people will become more available next week, and we certainly hope that this is the case.

During the meeting with CFK, our work plan is prioritized as follows:
(1) Quantify the typical household waste stream in Kibera. For example, what fraction of the waste is organic? Of the organic waste, what are the major types?
(2) Once we understand the major types of organic waste, Jacob will prototype the carbonization of such waste.
(3) Kevin will work with CFK to finalize our household and charcoal vendor survey. I am leaving this until the third and fourth week in the hope that (a) Jacob may have produced some briquettes that we can take to the households, (b) a particulate meter may arrive that can help us with indoor smoke measurement, and (c) we can get some preliminary results from mSurvey to help us refine the interview questions.

The feedback we obtained from CFK is that we should focus on the specific details of the community/charcoal vendor interviews, e.g. how many villages, age group, gender, etc. We will work on this shortly.

Currently our outstanding difficulty is as follows:

Being able to accurately measure indoor smoke becomes a very important aspect of our assessment, as we suspect that some non-charcoal briquettes being produced recently still emit harmful smoke that is nonetheless not visible to the households (as Amy Banzaert’s studies have recently revealed in Haiti). However, procuring a particulate meter has been difficult. We are exploring several options:
(a) purchasing and shipping by courier from the U.S.: this would cost about 900 USD (D-Lab cannot lend us a particulate meter);
(b) buying in Nairobi: we are making inquiries but have not met anyone who sells a particulate meter; and
(c) renting one from Kenyatta University: the person (Dr. Thomas Thoruwa) in charge of the Appropriate Technologies Department will not return until next Thursday, and even if we meet with him, there is no guarantee that the university will lend us a particulate meter; and
(d) exploring University of Nairobi’s FabLab: Dr. Kamau Gachigi said that there is no particulate meter there, but he will ask around.

January 13, 2012: A little calorimetry

Mama Jane went with us today to buy 2 kg of different qualities of charcoal (priced at 35 Ksh, 40 Ksh, and 50 Ksh), and two different types of jikos, so that we can perform some calorimetry experiment (e.g. boiling water) on the burning properties of charcoal. We hope that this will become our “gold standard” for cooking properties if we attempt to create our own briquettes.

The first jiko costs 280 Ksh, and is smaller:

Most houses in Kibera own this smaller type of jiko. The second jiko costs 600 Ksh and is of a more metallic composition:

This jiko uses more charcoal at one setting, and is usually used for larger occasions, such as making chapati for selling.

Moses was around in the afternoon, so with his help, we started our first calorimetry experiment with the most expensive (50 Ksh) charcoal on the cheaper 280 Ksh jiko. First we loaded the jiko with charcoal:

Then comes the difficult part—we lit some scrap paper to insert into the bottom chamber of the jiko, and fanned vigorously:

After about 13 minutes, the charcoal started to catch on fire, and we installed a pot of water (20 cups) on the stove. Jacob took measurement of the water temperature periodically:

While doing so, Jacob was surrounded by some inquisitive children, and had a chance to be a science teacher, explaining boiling point, how a thermometer works, etc. The jiko was small but powerful and efficient, and the water temperature rose very rapidly within the next half an hour or so:

Note that due to the altitude of Nairobi, water comes to a rolling boil at about 95 degrees Celsius.

The stove held the water at boiling for about 20 minutes, and then as the charcoal burnt up and lost its power output, the temperature of the water also slowly decreased, as seen as follows:

After about 2 hours, there were essentially all ash in the stove, except for a small chunk of hot, black charcoal with a small ash layer:

We started with 20 cups of water and ended up with 12 cups. We used a kitchen scale to measure the weight of a single cup to be approximately 150 g. So 20 cups of water is approximately 3000 g, or 3L. Using the specific heat capacity as well as the heat of vaporization of water, we have estimated the energy output of the charcoal to be 3-6 KJ/g. In addition, because it took about 37 minutes to boil the water, the average power output for boiling water of this charcoal in our Jiko is about 5 W. These numbers are very rough estimates but can give us a clue as to how efficient and how much power any charcoal that we produce must be.

January 13, 2012: The Cost of a Charcoal Press

Jacob wanted to have a D-Lab charcoal press made in Kibera, and Medina introduced us to two jua kali (informal) welders, David and Peter, in the Makina neighborhood. The charcoal press was designed to be low-cost, and could be made by welding three pairs of metal parts together, plus drilling a hole in a block of wood. In the past, the press could be manufactured for as low as 2 USD apiece.

The initial quote was 2500 Ksh (about 30 USD), which seemed quite hefty to us. Then we started discussing which metal parts have to be steel (those that need to withstand constant pounding without deformation), and which metal parts can be bent iron. The final quote for this was 1000 Ksh (about 11 USD), which is still not cheap. If we were to make the charcoal press in a larger batch, the welders estimated that the price could be lowered to about 700 Ksh (about 8 USD). The delivery should take about 3 work days. We are still not sure how D-Lab managed to negotiate the price down to 2 USD.

Update: in retrospect, the cylindrical parts of the charcoal press can all be made with standard steel or metal pipes (or washers), and we are thinking whether or not it would have been cheaper if we had sourced these standard plumbing pipes ourselves and cut those into segments for welding. Perhaps this is what we will try if we have our second charcoal press made.

This morning, the welders came to CFK to discuss the prices with us:

January 12, 2012: City Garbage Recyclers

We visited City Garbage Recyclers at the Maringo Estate in the Eastleigh area this morning, with our host James Gakunju. This youth group was started in 1996, and currently they run three programs: plastic recycling, composting, and briquetting.

The group procures waste plastic from other youth groups or collectors, and the larger-sized plastics are first cut into smaller pieces by hand:

The smaller pieces are then fed into a second-hand, Nairobi-made plastic grinding machine, which costs about 600000 Ksh (about 6900 USD):

The plastic pieces are then sold to recycling facilities for about 40 Ksh (0.50 USD) per kilogram. Currently plastic recycling is the most profitable of the three projects taken by this youth group. The youth group has also acquired an expensive injection moulding machine for about 800000 Ksh (about 9150 USD), and hopes to be making plastic basins (about 100 Ksh apiece) to be sold.

The second project is organic composting. The youth group employs about 5 people to collect garbage from about 500 households in the neighborhood daily. This produces about 1 ton of organic waste. The organic waste, such as sukuma, pineapple, is mixed with ash and left to compost:

The process takes about 6 weeks, with periodic stirring to ensure homogeneous composting. Such compost is then sold to farmers, at about 15 Ksh per kilogram.

The third project is fuel briquetting. The youth group also collects cardboard paper from the nearby industrial area:

Such cardboard paper is mixed with paper and beaten (manually) into a pulp:

The pulp is then mixed with charcoal dust (collected from the leftover of wood charcoal production) and pressed into briquettes, left to dry in the sun.

At the time of our visit, the main briquette press is broken, waiting to be fixed in the next few days:

This press was made by the informal sector (jua kali) on Jogoo Road, for a cost of about 10000 Ksh (114 USD), and normally produces long, cylindrical briquettes that are about 8 cm in diameter and 21 cm in length:

One of such briquette sells for 5 Ksh apiece, and there are about 100 households as customers. When people cook, they manually break the briquette into smaller chunks to feed into the jiko. The youth group also tried making fuel briquettes using other organic materials such as coffee husks and sawdust, but reported that these materials produced undesirable smoke. However,

In the youth group’s office, there exists another briquette press:

This one was also made by the jua kali for about 20000 Ksh (228 USD), but does not run because it lacks a driving motor or a pedal-powered device. This one would also produce briquettes whose diameter is narrower.

The briquette project started about 4 years ago. Before learning from these briquette presses (at the Institute of Agricultural Research???), the youth group used to mould the briquettes by hand. James is also quite interested in our project. Currently the likes of coffee husks and sawdust are not used because they produce much smoke. If such waste can be converted into relatively clean-burning charcoal dust first, then this presents an expanded opportunity for the use of organic waste as cooking fuel.

January 10, 2012: Introduction 2: Trash sorting and plastics

This post represents an introductory series in which the Takachar team is introduced to Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato program. While the content may not be very relevant to the charcoal work, it may interest readers in the waste management community, such as D-Lab: Waste.

We met with Medina, the director of Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato (Trash Is Cash) program, this morning, and had a very meaningful conversation on the high-level goals of our project. The first step, naturally, was for us to learn more about how the Taka ni Pato program works, so we spent some time with Moses, an officer in the program (whom Kevin also worked with in March during the community interviews).
According to Moses, the Taka ni Pato program has several overarching goals: training (youth leadership, entrepreneurship), marketing products (of different partnering youth groups), educating (in schools in topics such as sanitation, and tree-planting), and cleaning up (done on a monthly basis, per village). The waste management program currently serves about 2000-3000 houses throughout Kibera, though most of the clients are in Kianda, Gatwekera, and Soweto. The possible main barriers for a larger adoption are: (1) people still need to be sensitized to proper waste management, and (2) not everyone can afford the garbage collection service (50/=). The bottom line of the program is to improve the waste management in Kibera to avoid random dumping or other practices (e.g. random burning) that are generally considered unethical:

Once trash is collected, it can be sorted into various streams. Some are processed by one of the collaborating youth groups into necklaces, weaved bags, fuel briquettes, etc. The plastics are submitted for recycling, and most organic waste is made into manure (though there is limited market near Nairobi for this product). The remaining goes to the landfill managed by the City Council of Nairobi.

With Moses, we visited Taka ni Pato’s plastic recycling storage facility in Kianda. It is an impressive store full of plastic containers and shredded parts. Basically, every Tuesday, the youths visit the houses to collect the trash, and the sorted plastic can be categorized into two piles. The first pile consists of cheap plastic (sold to recycling facilities at 10/= per kg):

The second pile consists of more expensive plastic (sold to recycling facilities at 40/= per kg):

As seen, the more expensive plastic is shredded by the following machine:

In fact, Moses claims that this is the only plastic-shredding machine in Kibera (800000/=, made in Nairobi). This also explains the fact that even though Taka ni Pato is run in various villages and have satellite collection sites, at the end of the day, all the youths need to drag the plastics to the Kianda storage site, where the shredding machine is located.

So what’s in store for tomorrow? In the morning we have an appointment with Dr. Kamau Gachigi at the University of Nairobi. He has done some work with agricultural charcoal and has been a close contact with Amy Banzaert, so it would be interesting for us to find out what he is up to. We will also meet with Norbert and Hillary, two other important stakeholders in Carolina for Kibera in the Taka ni Pato program. Hopefully Moses will also have the time to take us out to see some more of Taka ni Pato’s projects, such as the fuel briquetting project!

January 10, 2012: Introduction 1: Victorious bones

This post represents an introductory series in which the Takachar team meets Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato program. While the content may not be very relevant to the charcoal work, it may interest readers in the waste management community, such as D-Lab: Waste.

Today we visited bones salesmen. They are the Victorious Youth Group in the Soweto West neighborhood, and we met them as we were given an overview of some of the projects under Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato initiative. Although their work does not directly coincide with that of Takachar, we were nonetheless very interested in the waste recycling aspects of their business venture. This group takes cow bones produced from a local slaughterhouse, shapes them, and creates stunning artwork from them (the black, as we are told, is created from permanganate dye):

Founded in 2006, the Victorious Youth Group provides opportunities for unemployed youth in Kibera—currently they employ about 30 people plus some temporary workers. In the past, such decorations were made from ivory, which was eventually outlawed, and bones became the substitute. Alternatively, the bones obtained from the slaughterhouses can also be ground to use as feed or manure, but these commodities are valued lowly in Nairobi, so people also start using bones as a source of artwork (e.g. for tourists), which often have a more attractive value added. In fact, several people in Kibera (and elsewhere) have already worked on the bone-carving business since the 1980s but as far as people can recount, the Victorious Youth Group is the first attempt to bring these disparate efforts together in the area. For some payment, they also train local people in the skills of bone-carving—a skill that is harder to acquire than seems! For example, it may take a year to train a fast learner. Once a person finishes his/her apprenticeship, he/she will have the capability to set up a workshop elsewhere. But it appears that the barrier is high: it takes 25000/= to obtain a bone-carving grinder or drill, and such a machine may last anywhere from months to a few years before it is broken. Victorious Youth Group has about 5-6 of such machines.

The work itself is long and arduous as well. A piece of bone can be acquired from about 20-70 /=, and a finished piece sells from about 100-400 /=. But the pieces involve refined shaping and finishing that it may take a day’s worth of work to complete one piece. One of the most significant challenges faced by the group is that they do not have ready access to a market: their workshop is hidden in a back-alley in the Soweto East district, and they cannot afford to rent a storefront on the main road. Sometimes they will not get orders for a long time, and when they get orders, it is often from local dealers/middlemen who pay low prices for the artworks, and then resell those to tourists (e.g. at the market) for a much higher price. While partnership with Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato program, and the increasing tourist interest in places like Kibera (where now there are actually organized tours to visit the slum and visit workshops like this) helped the group’s cause somewhat, they are still actively looking for a larger market. Then there is also the deleterious effects of the dust created by trimming down the bone. When inhaled, this dust can create significant illnesses and complications. The group tries to provide masks, but these are getting expensive, especially the high quality ones. When we visited the workshop, no one was wearing masks and we almost immediately noticed the dust in the air.

We were quite impressed by the fine bone carvings. The existence of the middlemen shows that there is a tangible demand for the product, but that the Victorious Youth Group has trouble reaching those willing to purchase. As with any technology or good, the quality of the good can be rendered meaningless if a market cannot be found. While bone-carving is somewhat beyond the scope and expertise of our charcoal project, we think that it would be a very worthwhile project for someone (perhaps a potential PSC fellow) to systematically catalogue the products of unknown local youth groups and help them reach a larger market not only in Kenya but also beyond.

January 9, 2012: Setting things in motion

Jacob will not be arriving until the night of 9th January, so the work with our community partner Carolina for Kibera (CFK) has not formally started yet. Kevin has settled down in Nairobi and has arranged to connect or meet some non-CFK contacts who nonetheless are still highly relevant in our project. Amongst these are:

– Jack Menya — Based in Mombasa, he also works in the conservation of the Rumuruti Forest, about 5 hours’ drive from Nairobi in the Rift Valley region. People around that forest often cut down trees for heating homes and/or producing charcoal to be sold to nearby cities. He is interested in the potential of producing charcoal from local agricultural waste. He has invited us to visit the Rumuruti Forest during the weekend of January 14-15, and he envisions that during the first visit, we can start with a community-based survey to understand how people use the wood. Jack is also interested in CFK’s community work, and said that if the agricultural charcoal project is successful, he is eager to expand it to other parts that he works. In our conversation, we also touched upon the lack of waste management in the city of Mombasa. There seems to be some promising projects here too—perhaps for the next iteration of D-Lab: Waste class?

– Kenneth Owade — He is the Nairobi-based partner of mSurvey. Since we are potential customers of mSurvey in Kibera-based surveys to understand the local cooking habits, Kenneth met with Kevin to figure out the feasibility of the survey questions, and will consult Kenfield regarding the best way to do it. Right now it seems that we are planning for 5 villages in Kibera, 10 households each, with as much of a random sampling as possible concerning age, gender, etc. Kenneth is such an amazing person with various talents!

– James Riungu — Kevin was introduced to him through MIT’s Careers Office, as James is an alum of the MIT/Zaragoza Logistics program. He currently works as a supply chain specialist with Management Sciences for Health (Nairobi office). We hope to meet up this afternoon and talk more about his interests as well as our project.

– James Gakunju — James works with the group City Garbage Recyclers, which also does some work with charcoal briquetting (using uncarbonized organic waste). We were introduced to this group due to Jackie Stenson from D-Lab, who has done some work with these various waste-related groups back in 2009. It would be relevant for us to learn “prior art” in charcoal briquetting. We plan to visit him on Thursday morning.

This is the first work day in Nairobi and the schedule is already packed! I cannot but feel excited not only about the work, but also about the potential synergies that can come out of the various stakeholders (mentioned above) and their common interests.

December 22, 2011: Getting Started

The purpose of this blog is to document the in-the-field observations of the MIT-based Takachar team, which will be making its first trip to Nairobi over January 2012. For now, I’ll just briefly introduce the team.

Our aim is to improve the sustainability and security of cooking fuel supply in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. In this part of the world, charcoal remains an important cooking fuel, though its production from wood can lead to deforestation, and the increasing scarcity is putting an economic strain on the local households.

We are interested in producing charcoal from organic waste commonly found in Nairobi. There are two fronts that our team tackle: technical and logistical. On the technical side, we are trying to understand the waste stream in Nairobi as well as to prototype some models to convert urban organic waste into charcoal–essentially version 2.0 of D-Lab’s agricultural charcoal. On the logistical side, we are trying to understand both the household cooking preferences as well as the charcoal supply chain and market in Nairobi in order to help us better understand how a potential new waste-to-charcoal technology can fit into the local landscape.

Our team has an IDEAS profile page, as well as a Facebook page for sharing photos. Please FOLLOW/LIKE us on both pages!

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