Creating fuel from agricultural waste

In Kenya, a company is recycling waste from harvested sugar cane and coffee to create fuel – a glimpse of what the circular economy could look like if it takes hold across Africa.


Behind the Muhoroni Sugar factory in southwestern Kenya lies a mountain of leaves and stalks from sugar cane.

Traditionally these agricultural byproducts, along with those from coffee, go into landfills or are used as fertiliser. Located in the Westlands area of Nairobi, Lean Energy Solutions is an alternative energy manufacturer and consultancy firm that has found a new use for agricultural waste produced during sugar and coffee cultivation; repurposing it into “Lean Briqs”, a cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to high-carbon-emitting energy sources such as gas and diesel.

Sugar and coffee cultivation are a serious deal in Kenya; last year the country produced 620,000 tonnes of sugar and 50,000 tonnes of coffee. According to Dinesh Tembhekar, who founded the company in 2006, the logs are also relatively inexpensive, saving clients up to 25% on their energy bills.

Tembhekar stresses that everything is produced on site in Nairobi – cutting transportation costs and pollution – and providing employment to local Kenyans. “Producing a tonne of logs means creating 12 days of labour for a Kenyan and cutting CO2 emissions by one tonne,” he said.

To produce the “Lean Briqs” briquettes, Lean Energy Solutions combines sugar cane and coffee waste with agricultural byproducts such as sawdust, coal ash and water. Still damp, this organic mixture passes through an immense dryer with an integrated compressor.

The final amalgamation is then tightly packed into the shape of logs, which can be burned in a furnace or boiler to produce power. Every day the firm receives 80 tonnes of debris and produces some 40 tonnes of these logs for 14 companies in Kenya and Tanzania, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the textile producer Spinners & Spinners.

The company also conducts energy audits for other firms to help them reduce costs and embrace green fuel sources. Past projects have seen Tembhekar and his team assist factories in switching from oil-fired production to “Lean Briqs” and install eco-friendly swimming pool heating systems.

Lean Energy Solutions now employs 15 people in Kenya alone, the majority of them women. This small team form part of a much bigger picture. Along with Lean Solutions Tanzania and Lean Solutions Nairobi, Lean Energy Solutions is part of the Lean Solutions Group – a management consultancy working across the continent, also headed up by Tembhekar.

Their success has not gone unnoticed: Lean Energy Solutions took home the 2013 Africa Climate Good Practice Award and KPMG’s Kenya Top 100 SMEs in 2013–14 award. Still, it remains one of only a few African companies outside of South Africa to have embraced the circular economy, which involves recycling resources to maximise their lifespan, resulting in little or no waste.

Vast potential

The “Lean Briqs” experience would seem to indicate that there is a vast potential for the circular economy in Africa. A continent-wide strategy to increase recycling could boost economic growth while keeping industrial waste and pollution to a minimum.

Implementing such a strategy, however, would require a concerted and ambitious effort on the part of Africa’s leaders. Looking to the future, Lean Energy Solutions has recently expanded into the solar energy sector.

In mid 2017, the company released both domestic solar kits and photovoltaic public lighting for households and communities without electricity in Kenya. While it’s too early to say if the new products will have the same success as “Lean Briqs”, it is clear that the company continues to shed light on the potential of the circular economy and eco-friendly energy sources in Africa.

African Business

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