This post is the fourth in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about how we’re making advanced biomass stoves affordable and accessible through our innovative membership model. In this post, we’ll talk more about the compressed biomass fuel: what it’s made of, how it’s produced, and why we think it’s a great fuel to use. We’ll also explain how selling the fuel enables us to expand the project to serve more families.
Traditionally, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80% of families use wood or charcoal to cook their meals. As a result, even in countries and regions with natural forest ecosystems, deforestation has become an acute environmental problem. Trees and other plants sequester carbon in large quantities through photosynthesis– half the weight of dry wood is carbon. Clearing forests not only limits nature’s ability to remove carbon from the air, it also releases carbon from the disturbed soil, greatly increasing atmospheric carbon levels and accelerating global warming.
Most sub-Saharan African countries are approaching crisis deforestation levels. A few years ago, the Ugandan government issued a report predicting complete depletion of the country’s forest stock by 2050 if deforestation rates continued unchecked.
Ideally, it would be possible to transition large numbers of people to cooking with gas or electricity in the near future. In reality, experts predict that gas and electricity providers won’t be able to build an economically-viable infrastructure and distribution network for another couple of decades. As a result, sub-Saharan Africa will continue to rely on solid biomass fuels for cooking for many years to come.
So the challenge is to reduce reliance on wood and charcoal now. The good news is that there’s a plentiful and readily-available biomass alternative to wood and charcoal: organic agricultural and industrial waste, such as sawdust, corn husk, rice straw and peanut shells. All of these organic materials are combustible, sustainable forms of biomass. Local factories in Burkina Faso and Uganda are already compressing these waste materials into pellets, discs, and/ or briquettes. We’re partnering with these factories to produce fuel for the advanced biomass stoves we’re distributing.
As we explained in our previous blog post about our membership model, affordability is very important to us. Our goal is to maximize the number of people that have access to advanced cookstoves. At the same time, we value self-sufficiency – relying solely on grants to fund our programs is not a sustainable strategy. So in order to cover the costs of these projects and generate revenue to replicate them in other geographies, we’re selling the compressed biomass fuel to our members. But don’t worry, it’s a win-win proposition: our goal is to keep household cooking expenses below what our customers would pay to purchase wood and charcoal to cook using traditional methods, while also helping to fund the expansion of our projects to serve more families.
Our next post in the series will focus on household air pollution – why it’s our primary goal to drastically reduce our members’ exposure to it. Check in soon!