Planet Green Africa: Turning agricultural waste into safe and renewable energy
"Planet Green Africa was started with the purpose of fighting climate change in the best way possible; to be a voice for Mother Nature. We want to be the champions and pioneers of clean cooking fuel in Malawi."
Mwayi Kampesi, founder of Planet Green Africa
Having grown up watching their mother, and other local women, cook for hours in hot, smoky kitchens, Mwayi and Atu witnessed first-hand the negative impact of traditional cooking fuels on women's health, and understood the negative effects on the environment, with trees cut down and habitats lost to support local cooking needs. Believing that cleaner, safer alternatives were possible, they founded Planet Green Africa, a social enterprise that develops and produces eco-friendly cooking briquettes from recycled agricultural waste.
In comparison to traditional firewood fuel, Planet Green Africa's briquette burns up to three times longer, emits more heat and, importantly, no toxic gas emissions, providing local households with a safer alternative for cooking. Not only are the briquettes cleaner and more energy-efficient, but they are also much cheaper than firewood and charcoal, selling at half the price to ensure accessibility for all. Planet Green Africa is fully immersed in the local community, working with local farmers to source agricultural waste and partnering with local women groups to provide employment across their supply chain, from raw material collection to the selling of the final briquette product.
QCT support will enable Planet Green Africa to acquire an automated briquetting machine, together with solar equipment, which will help increase manufacturing capacity and improve the quality of briquette production. By making the production process more efficient, the organisation will be able to meet demand and scale operations further. QCT will also work with Planet Green Africa to provide advice and guidance on organisational areas including safeguarding and financial management.
Planet Green Africa works towards SDGs 7. Affordable and Clean Energy and 8. Sustainable Development
In Malawi, a high dependency by local communities on trees and nearby forestry to provide fuel for cooking and a source of lighting is causing poor health amongst families (particularly women and mothers who spend prolonged periods cooking in the kitchen), and is causing rapid deforestation to the area.
Planet Green Africa uses agricultural waste to manufacture eco-friendly briquettes which burn longer than traditional firewood and charcoal alternatives, and do not emit toxic fumes detrimental to both the health of individuals and the environment. Briquettes are also sold at half the price of firewood, enabling more accessibility and an incentive for those in sales/enterprise to transition towards.
To date, Planet Green Africa has recycled 800 tonnes of waste. On average, 12 tonnes of agricultural waste produces the same number of briquettes that 80 tonnes of trees would. Their social enterprise model has provided employment both 116 women and youths across the business. Planet Green Africa currently has 106 community members involved in waste supplies, and 10 resellers who all earn a sales income.
"Since we have started working together, QCT has already taught me so much. The best part is that QCT is walking with us, learning about our projects and teaching us how best to build something sustainable and scalable, not only via funding, but technical assistance as well."
Mwayi Kampesi, founder of Planet Green Africa
Getting to know Mwayi Kampesi
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Mwayi Kampesi, I was born and raised in Blantyre Malawi, and I am an architect by profession. I have always been very passionate about protecting the environment and empowering women, so although being in a job for 3 years after graduating, I realised that the job did not give me the fulfilment that I needed. So, I founded my first business, In House-Interiors, in 2014, which served to fulfil my two passions for the environment and female empowerment, and finally allowed me to create the positive change I wanted to see in society. In 2017, I founded Planet Green Africa, with the same purpose guiding our direction.
Why did you decide to work in this area?
Growing up in a country like Malawi, where 98% of the population relies on firewood and wood charcoal, made it almost impossible to not wonder where all these trees were coming from. In the community I grew up in, every household depends on firewood, as we have no access to dependable electricity.
Being an agricultural country, Malawi has experienced the impact of cutting down vast amounts of trees and forestry. There have been significant changes in our climate, including severe floods which have resulted in destroying livelihoods and communities and led to an increased level of poverty.
Keen to break this cycle, I decided to do more research about the problems we were facing. I was shocked to learn that, not only does this dependence of trees for fuel have a negative impact on the environment, but this simple act of using firewood to prepare a meal also has devastating effects on people’s health, especially those who spend a lot of time cooking – eg. women. In Malawi, 1 in every 10 deaths is attributed to the fumes from the kitchens; the toxic air pollutants that are produced from these penetrate deep into the lungs of the users within the homes. Our biggest victims are our mothers; they are the ones that spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing meals for us. I couldn’t believe that this simple act of preparing a meal came with such horrific consequences and I knew then that I needed to do something.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
Initially, I had to do a lot of research to understand how we could best help solve the deforestation problem. I also needed to get to the root of why, even with so many proven harmful environmental and social consequences, there were not already any existing sustainable alternatives. I ran a few ideas and approaches past my sister, (who is equally very passionate about the environment), and she quickly decided to work with me to find a solution. From my studies of suitability and waste management a few years prior, I had basic knowledge to help us understand what needed to be done and who in the energy sector we needed to involve in order to progress. So, we mobilised resources and approached individuals who had knowledge of the energy sector specifically in alternative cooking fuel. Altogether, it took us almost a year of trial and error to come up with the briquettes we have now! We named them ‘Nyasa Moto’– which means ‘of Malawi fire’.
We knew that, if we were going to be successful at creating long-lasting, positive change, we had to change the narrative of the entire community. From research, and our lived experience of the communities we needed to serve, we knew that competitive cost and proving increased efficiency were the biggest variables for us to be able to achieve our goal.
We needed a product that would not only work as an alternative cooking fuel, but also be affordable for the vast majority of Malawians that survive on less than $2 a day. We therefore designed Nyasa Moto to be a cooking fuel that low income communities can afford, which burns longer than traditional alternatives and is free of toxic air pollutants. Successful trials of Nyasa Moto gained us additional support in the setting up and designing of our business, and with our own savings we invested in local production lines, using manual machinery and locally found materials.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?
Resistance from local communities and changing the mind-set of those in our villages was the biggest challenge we faced. For so long, our ancestors have depended on sourcing cooking fuels from trees, so having to break the tradition to convince people of a new sustainable culture has not been easy, and at times seemed almost impossible. However, this changed when we shifted to a model of collaborating with the communities through involving them in our value chain to be a part of the solution.
We work with them to source the raw materials needed to create our briquettes from agricultural and urban waste in exchange for cash. By including them in this way, they witnessed first-hand the financial reward they would get from working with us. We also work with the same communities, involving them as distributing agents selling the charcoal briquettes in our established kiosks. Here they are able to sell the charcoal briquette on our behalf and earn commission. At the same time, they are also beginning to appreciate and understand that this new alternative fuel was a solution and product by them and for them.
These communities then would use, introduce and testify for our charcoal briquettes in other communities, and, within a short period of time, many people accepted the transition. Our commitment to making a difference also empowered us to start environmental awareness campaigns, further educating communities on environmental conservation measures and impact, and best practice to conserve their forestry. This additional education is also making the transition easier, as communities now have better knowledge of the long-term effects of cutting down trees and share our vision.
What has been your proudest moment with this work?
Overall I would say, we are proud to be a one-of-a-kind social enterprise in Malawi that with just one simple solution, has simultaneously tackled three of the country’s most pressing issues - providing solutions to environmental issues by recycling waste, reducing deforestation and providing women economic empowerment by creating employment and income opportunities. We are also supporting hundreds of the small holder farmers in vulnerable communities, who are able to sell us their agricultural waste, this on its own makes us proud.
On a personal note, I would also highlight that gaining a seat at the African Union (AU) Headquarters as a panellist during the World Export Development Forum in 2019, was a particularly proud moment. This just showed that the work we are doing at Planet Green Africa has a significant impact and deserves to be amplified.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
At every point we all have something new to learn; leadership is a journey of self-development and self-improvement. However, I would highlight the most fundamental values I have learnt are discipline, setting a focus and commitment. Talent and intelligence can take a person so far, but without discipline, one is bound to failure.
I have also learnt to never stop learning. The strongest leaders are those who are lifelong students; I believe this is what has given me the courage to be where I am today, and it is what pushes me to drive change and make a difference.
What are your future goals for Planet Green Africa?
Planet Green Africa was started with the purpose of fighting climate change in the best way possible; to be a voice for Mother Nature. We want to be the champions and pioneers of clean cooking fuel in Malawi. Having charcoal briquettes as an alternative cooking fuel to fight deforestation is the first step. On top of this, we want to ensure that the once smoky kitchens in millions of homes across Malawi are safe and free of the hazardous fumes found in traditional fuelling methods. Our goal is to ensure every household in Malawi switches to sustainable cooking fuel.
As we are set to install our bigger automated machinery, we have set a target to increase our 50 women distributors (whom we pride to have empowered as new small business owners selling and distributing our cooking fuels in communities) further. By 2021, we want to have also impacted at least 800 small holder farmers, who will gather and collect agriculture waste around their fields. Beyond this, we plan to replicate and open factories in the 3 major cities of Malawi.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
It is essential that youth are informed and engaged with the global vision for the future. It is also important that through active participation, we are empowered to play vital roles at an early stage. Young people make up the biggest portion of the population; they are therefore the agents of change and key players in mobilizing change to improve the lives of people and the health of the planet. Young people need to be on the forefront, as they are the future young leaders of tomorrow.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
Get started, start small, and have faith and belief in your idea, regardless of if no one else does. If no one close believes in it with you, find a mentor who can walk with you and can assist you.
It’s not going to be easy; you will feel the fear not to start - but start anyway! We all started from where you’re standing right now, so what are you waiting for?
What does working with QCT mean to you?
Since we have started working together, QCT has already taught me so much. The best part is that QCT is walking with us, learning about our projects and teaching us how best to build something sustainable and scalable, not only via funding, but technical assistance as well.
It is very exciting to be a part of the QCT team and this diverse network of other young leaders across the Commonwealth who are also providing solutions to global issues. With this platform, we believe we will be able to amplify and share our solutions, and hope that other people can learn from us as well. The credibility that comes along with QCT will definitely magnify our work. One of the things gained from QCT that we believe will help grow Planet Green Africa is a new level of credibility, which will help us form partnerships with other stakeholders that share the same vision as us.
Article published: May 2020
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