Hyacinths and Sawdust Used to Combat Africa's Cooking Pollution

  • Nigerian bioethanol brewer targets inferior cooking fuels
  • About 3 billion people depend on wood, charcoal and kerosene

A brew made from sawdust and water hyacinth flowers may help reduce the millions of lives lost across the developing world from the fumes of ramshackle cooking equipment.

Those are the ingredients being used by Green Energy Biofuels, a Nigerian renewable energy developer, to produce a bioethanol that substitutes for more polluting fuels such as kerosene, charcoal and wood. While the project is small -- work will start next year on a $65 million plant after a trial produced 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of fuel -- it’s one of a handful of programs across Africa to demonstrate that cleaner cooking can be economically viable.

Similar developments have won the backing of institutions such as the World Bank, World Health Organization and International Energy Agency. They estimate about 3 billion people still make meals with inferior fuels, leading to 4 million deaths a year from explosions and smoke inhalation. Cooking accounts for about a fifth of global emissions of black carbon, or soot, making it a target of climate-change campaigners ahead of a UN conference on the issue starting Nov. 30.

“I saw this as a huge gap in the market -- energy for domestic use,” Femi Oye, founder of Green Energy Biofuels, said in a phone interview. “Our product is trading below the price of the government-subsidized kerosene and the market is growing very well.”

The African Development Bank’s new president has outlined plans to address unsafe cooking fuels as part of an initiative dubbed the “New Energy Deal for Africa.” He intends to help 700 million people gain access to clean cooking energy over the course of a decade by setting up intermediary financing facilities to lend to low-income households.

“About 600,000 people die each year in Africa from unsafe cooking methods such as kerosene and biomass,” Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, said in a phone interview. “Fifty percent of the people are women and then other half are mostly children under the age of five.”

Green Energy Biofuels has spent $3 million on the pilot project and is closing its capital-raising series for the biorefinery now with construction planned to begin next year. It’s working to start commercial sales by 2017.

Global production of ethanol was at 87.8 billion liters last year, while capacity stood at 122.6 billion liters according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data. Almost all of it is made from food crops such as sugar cane in Brazil and corn in the U.S. with energy giants such as Total SA active in the space.

Food vs. Fuel

The United Nations has criticized fuels from edible crops, saying that they could lead to higher food prices and an increase in world hunger. Biofuels made from inedible crops, while less of a threat to the food chain, have been more difficult to develop to a commercial scale because they require more refining to break down tougher plant fibers.

“This suggests that the ethanol industry is struggling with significant overcapacity,” said Aleksandra Rybczynska, an analyst at BNEF. “But ethanol for cooking can have a strong social impact with a lot of health and wealth benefits surrounding this solution.”

The cooking fuel deficit is unlikely to be solved with electricity, as it is not an ideal source for powering stoves according to Thomas Duveau, head of business development at Mobisol Group, an off-grid solar panel developer in Tanzania.

Energy Guzzlers

“Electricity is really inefficient for heat production, an electric stove would need too much power and be too expensive,” said Duveau. His company has installed 3 megawatts of residential solar systems.

Green Energy Biofuels exports to Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Cameroon and Ethiopia. Talks are ongoing to raise capital to build production facilities in these countries according to Oye. The company is also considering entering Kenya, Congo and Madagascar.

The African Development Bank is funding Green Energy Biofuels, as well as the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the International Finance Corp., the United States Agency for International Development, the Acumen Fund, and the governments of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“People need to start thinking about the short-term effects of fuels such as on health, as well as climate change,” Oye said.

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