Leading by example

Innovation: local heroes

Kenyans are used to finding local solutions to everyday challenges and COVID-19 has inspired innovators to find creative ways to cope with the pandemic

Kenyan fashion designer of “Lookslikeavido”, David Avido, 24, poses for a portrait at his studio in Kibera, Nairobi, on March 18, 2020, with a mask he made, that he creates from remnant of cloth he uses, to hand out to people for free so that they can wear it as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by Gordwin ODHIAMBO / AFP)

Onyango Okoth was diagnosed with COVID-19 on 14 July after he visited a hospital in Kisumu for what he claims was a routine medical check. The father of four, who works as a fisherman in Lake Victoria in the western part of Kenya, says he had experienced shortness of breath and high fever the previous day, prompting him to look for treatment. “After receiving initial medical assistance, I was advised to go back home as the hospital facilities were packed,” says Okoth. “The doctors said I was to self-isolate for at least 14 days.” But Okoth, 45, did not know where to start; he’d never heard of self-care. “It was a long, tough and draining struggle with my meagre resources, which had to compete for food, medical equipment and sanitary products,” he told Africa in Fact. Faced with this financial pressure, he says he opted to look for alternative and affordable solutions, particularly a special bed that he had been advised to obtain. Okoth’s story mirrors the daily struggle of many Kenyans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While more than 30,000 Kenyans had contracted the disease by the first week of September, and there had been 581 deaths, many people had also lost their livelihoods, which has translated to escalated poverty rates. On 1 September, the Kenya Bureau of Statistics said in its Quarterly Labour Force report that unemployment had increased to 10.4% between April and June 2020 compared to the 5.2% recorded in the first quarter of 2020. But even though the crisis has meant sweeping changes to Kenyan society, daily routines and work life, it has also acted as a powerful driver of creative thought and innovation, especially among young people. “As much as we are working around the clock to ensure Kenyans adhere to the COVID-19 protocols and guidelines to contain its spread, we are also challenging young people to come up with innovations in response to the outbreak to stimulate economic and job growth,” says Julius Korir, the Principal Secretary, State Department for Youth.

This, he adds, is being done through training, mentorship, support systems, funding and the creation of an innovation-specific regulatory framework. Acknowledging that innovation is a critical element in providing solutions to ensure better health for all, the World Health Organization (WHO) in the African region held the first in a series of virtual innovation showcases on 21 May that brought together eight innovators and entrepreneurs drawn from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Guinea and Kenya, all of whom had found their own creative solutions to addressing gaps in local responses to COVID-19. Innovations showcased included interactive public transport contact tracing apps, dynamic data analytics systems, rapid diagnostic testing kits, mobile testing booths and low-cost critical care beds.

Among the eight innovators was Gordon Ogutu, 34, from Nairobi’s Githurai slums, who turned to YouTube to learn how critical care beds could be made and improvised locally to fit the demands of the market for people like Onyango Okoth. Ogutu says it was his anger that the Kenyan government was spending billions of shillings to import critical care beds that inspired him to come up with a local solution. Using the know-how he gathered from YouTube, he now makes critical care beds from locally assembled materials. Celebrating the creativity of Ogutu’s work during the event, WHO regional innovation advisor Moredreck Chibi said they aimed at continuing to integrate African innovators into the regional COVID-19 response strategy. Ogutu’s metal critical care beds are designed to provide comfort and safety to both the patient and the caregiver. The design includes a release feature that allows medical teams to flatten the bed at the push of a button or lever and IV poles with hooks to hang fluids and other medication administered via a drip.

Kenyan fashion desiner of “Lookslikeavido” David Avido, 24, creates masks from remnant of cloth he uses, to hand out to people for free so that they can wear it as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Kibera, Nairobi, on March 18, 2020. (Photo by Gordwin ODHIAMBO / AFP)

The beds also have removable heads and footboards, which lock safely into place allowing caregivers to tilt the bed and also to adjust the height. “If they (western countries) can do it, then I knew I could also, perhaps even better,” says Ogutu, who graduated from the Kenya Polytechnic in industrial chemistry in 2010. “I gained a lot of knowledge from various online platforms; it was not as complex as I had thought initially.” He told Africa in Fact that the demand for his beds had grown exponentially, with small hospitals as well individuals among his customers. “Impressed by my workmanship, customers have come from as far as 500 km away to order their beds. As a result, I have expanded my workshop labour pool to six, sometimes as many as 15 depending on the orders to be made.” Among his individual customers is Michael Ndwiga, 54, from Embu in central Kenya, who in June had two suspected COVID-19 cases in his family.

He says he purchased the locally made critical care beds from Ogutu after the government announced the plan for patients to be looked after at home due to congestion in hospitals. “Apart from being affordable, they are of good quality, and (quite) similar to those that are imported from abroad,” he said. Ogutu hopes to benefit from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s call on 15 July, which instructed the government to procure 500 hospital beds from local innovators. “The locally made critical care beds are a vital aid to public hospitals that are reeling under the pressure of COVID-19-related admissions,” President Kenyatta said then. The opportunities arising from the pandemic for young innovators have extended beyond critical care beds to locally made surgical masks, which were initially imported, at a relatively higher cost, from the United States, Europe and Asia.

David Avido, 24, a designer and proprietor of the LooksLikeAvido, a Kibrabased fashion firm that focuses on African fabrics, says he took matters into his own hands to produce masks for the people of the Kibra slums after he realised the gravity of the coronavirus. Unlike other businesses driven by return on investment, he told Africa in Fact that he makes and distributes the masks for free. Since March, Avido said, he had distributed more than 20,000 of the items. For his philanthropy, Avido has received a special commendation from President Kenyatta, listed in the 2020 Presidential Citations Order for Outstanding Professionals in Kenya’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Also among the 68 on the list for the Presidential Order of Service – Uzalendo Award was nine-year-old Stephen Wamukota from Mukwa in Bungoma, western Kenya, who came up with a wooden hand-washing machine to help check the spread of coronavirus.

Wamukota, who came up with the idea after learning on television about ways to prevent catching the virus, says the machine allows users to tip a bucket of water using a foot pedal to avoid touching surfaces, thus reducing the chance of infections. In a bid to enhance innovation, Deputy President William Ruto, in a 24 July tweet, said the government would step up the mentoring and resourcing of micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses and startups “with an appreciation that they are the arteries of our development”. He noted that, due to the biting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, the government would support and forge partnerships with creative entrepreneurs and businesses, big and small, to support their sustainable growth. Young people across Africa, he said, were exposed to environments that encouraged innovation.

“No doubt in the near future, given proper attention and the right environment, Africa will be the centre of global innovations and inventions, where even vaccines for stubborn pandemics like COVID-19 can be found,” he said.

Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the University of Nairobi.

Mobilising on all fronts against a common enemy

Youth: Fighting COVID-19 their way

Africa’s young people are using resourcefulness and new technologies to engage and make a difference in the battle against the virus

Ndlovu Youth Choir “America’s Got Talent” Season 14 Live Show Red Carpet at Dolby Theatre on September 17, 2019 in Hollywood, California. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images/AFP

As Africa continues to battle COVID-19, the continent’s youth are not sitting idly by waiting for the worst to come. Across the continent, young people are hard at work, in partnership with governments and diverse partners, providing solutions to help reduce the spread of the virus and ways to address the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, through engagements and innovation. In Egypt, Mohamed Elkholy, 25, is using new technologies to engage young people, fight misinformation about COVID-19 and spread the right messages about the virus. Mohamed, the leader of youth network Y-Peer Egypt, has been hosting a youth-to-youth podcast programme to create awareness among young people. In a country like Egypt, where youth constitute some 60% of the population, finding effective ways to engage young people and empower them is important in the battle against the pandemic.

Gwendolyn Myers, a 29-year-old peace activist, is co-chairing the National Youth Taskforce Against COVID-19 in Liberia. The task force was set up under the auspices of Liberia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, bringing together five youth-led organisations. It was established to mobilise and build young people, empowering them to to lead campaigns against the pandemic in local communities. The task force, for example, uses young people at grassroots levels to ensure food is distributed to vulnerable sectors of the population, and to distribute essential sanitary material in high-risk virus hotspots such as slum communities and informal settlements with large populations and a limited supply of social services. In East Africa, Kibra Green is a youth organisation in Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, in the capital Nairobi. The group is passionate about the localised implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 3 on health and wellbeing.

The group has been engaged in several initiatives to mitigate and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Alfred Otieno, a leading member of Kibra Green, believes that youth have a critical role to play in the fight against the virus. In their case, the group, in partnership with UN-Habitat and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), has set up hand-washing stations for residents, enabling them to sanitise. The group has also handed out masks, disseminated relevant information about COVID-19 and prevention, as well distributed food and other essential items to vulnerable families, including sanitary pads to needy girls. Kennedy Odede, the CEO and founder of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a grassroots organisation that offers support to several hundred thousand slum residents in Nairobi, argues that youth are in the majority on the continent and yet most of the time young people find themselves marginalised. “We can’t win this COVID-19 war if the youth are not involved,” Odede says.

Mohammed Elkholy spreads the right messages about COVID-19. Photo: Raphael Obonyo

“We have a new youth in Africa who will not follow orders. This new youth want to be listened to, not told what to do. They believe they have the solutions. Now let’s tap on them to fight COVID-19.” In Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Christella Kiakuba, 26, an orphan of military parents and co-founder of community organisation Telema Mwana Ya Mapinga, is helping women and orphans protect themselves from the coronavirus. She is distributing face masks and showing people how to use them, and how to sanitise. She and her organisation deliver food and provide legal help to widows and orphans. In Cameroon, Achaleke Christian, the national coordinator of civil society organisation Local Youth Corner, launched a “One Person, One Sanitiser” campaign in April to prevent the spread of coronavirus, especially among the poor.

He and members of the youth group have produced homemade hand sanitisers using World Health Organization standards and distributed them for free, teaming up with a coalition of youth civil society organisations, medical doctors, pharmacists and a laboratory scientist in the process. In South Africa, young people have been at the forefront of government and community efforts to educate people about the basic preventive measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19. One example is 750Amped, a national campaign launched in May by South Africa’s National Department of Health and the Health and Welfare Sector Education and Training Authority (HWSETA). The initiative, which involved the initial training of 750 learners, was established as “a proactive intervention that leverages the power of youth to inspire changes in social behaviour through training, education, and awareness around COVID-19”, according to the 750Amped website.

Kibra Green is a youth organisation engaged in initiatives to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Kibera, Nairobi. Photo: Raphael Obonyo

Young South Africans have also used the power of music to encourage their communities to practise preventative measures against the virus. The Ndlovu Youth Choir, which was originally formed in 2008 by a Dutch doctor, working in South Africa’s largely rural Limpopo province to help orphans and the children of Aids patients, became a global phenomenon when they reached the finals of the TV show America’s Got Talent. They were forced to cancel an international tour when COVID-19 swept the world, but since then a video of a new song, in isiZulu with English subtitles, that demonstrates how to practise basic preventative measures, has gone viral. North of the border, in Zimbabwe, Bridget Mutsinze, 25, is among a group of youth volunteers working with development organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VOS), using social media to fight coronavirus misinformation.

They have taken to Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and radio to comb through online comments, to identify and correct COVID-19 misinformation. In Côte d’Ivoire, Ibrahima Diabate and the Youth Peace and Security Network recorded a series of awareness-raising videos in different local languages to disseminate the much-needed information about coronavirus. The videos went viral on social media platforms. The use of local languages, and the cultural translation of the messages in ways that make sense to the communities they target, have enhanced their accessibility. And telling the stories of life under COVID-19, in this case among poor and marginalised communities in southern Africa, are dynamic young journalists like the team at Tazama World Media in Kenya, led by James Smart and Kizito Gamba in Kenya, who are dedicated to community-based journalism using smart phones and social media.

As South Africa’s Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said when he launched youth month 2020 on 2 June, recalling the role of young people in fighting the country’s apartheid regime: “The youth of 2020 have been called upon to fight a much more silent war, the coronavirus pandemic, and to help rebuild a society post COVID-19.” As Mthethwa correctly noted in his address, young people have a major role to play in the fight against the coronavirus – because youth are Africa’s greatest asset and the future of the continent depends on them.

The rules of engagement

COVID-19: an African overview

African countries have reacted in different ways to the pandemic, from outright denial to some of the most stringent lockdown rules in the world

Believers pray without social distancing at a Palm Sunday mass at the Full Gospel Fellowship Church in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, April 2020 Photo: Ericky Boniphace / AFP

When retired star footballer Musa Otieno went public on 30 June 2020 after contracting COVID-19, Kenyans sat up and listened. It was a sobering moment for the country, especially among the naysayers who still believed that the disease was nothing but a scaremongering tactic by the government. Otieno was a long-serving captain of the national team apart from playing professional football for the Cape Town based Santos FC, which won the South African League when he was there in the 2001/02 season. Before news of Otieno’s illness had sunk in, the country was numbed by the death from COVID-19 of popular TV and stage actor Charles Bukeko, who gained world fame when he appeared in an advert for Coca Cola, which aired globally just before the 2010 World Cup.

Finally, celebrated TV news anchor Jeff Koinange also went public on 20 July 2020 after testing positive. The former CNN journalist advised Kenyans to take the disease seriously. These three cases proved to be a godsend for a government that was trying hard to contain the spread of the virus amidst widespread public scepticism. Ever since the first case was reported in Kenya in early March, the numbers have kept rising, a situation that prompted President Uhuru Kenyatta to announce a nationwide curfew as well as lockdown of the capital Nairobi, the port city of Mombasa and Mandera, bordering Somalia and Ethiopia.

The first of the raft of measures were announced by President Kenyatta on 26 March 2020 with a 7 pm to 5 am curfew exempting those providing essential services, and a ban on all gatherings, including places of worship and sporting activities. Weddings and funerals were allowed but with the caveat that only 15 people attend while adhering to all the safety protocols laid out by the Ministry of Health. President Kenyatta, at the time of writing, has been reviewing these measures monthly and in his latest address on 28 August 2020, he extended the curfew and ban on bars and entertainment operations for a further 30 days.

Churches and mosques have since been allowed to open but with a strict one and a half hours service with attendants limited to 100 people maximum. The first partial lifting of the tough conditions that allowed the sale of alcohol in restaurants, but with the caveat that alcohol could only be sold if patrons also ordered food, was announced by the head of state in his June address. But nothing can separate Kenyans from their drink, it seems, and soon afterwards Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe lamented that people were breaking the rule with impunity. According to the former newspaper executive, wily Kenyans were going to restaurants, ordering a sausage or two, then engaging in binge drinking.

Members of Bungoma County Isolation Team carry the coffin of Dr. Doreen Lugaliki, 39, the first Kenyan doctor to die of COVID-19 at her funeral in Ndalu, Kenya, July 2020 Photo: Brian Ongoro/AFP

Restaurant goers referred to this as “Mutahi Kagwe Special”, (“special” here being borrowed from eateries parlance where people order special meals), the minister said. And the beer ban busting was not entirely limited to the common folk. Towards the end of July, the Senator for Nairobi Johnson Sakaja, a close ally of President Kenyatta, was caught by policemen as he hosted a party at a high-end hotel long after the permitted hours of 5 to 7 pm. His case was all the more interesting because he was the chairman of the Senate ad hoc committee on COVID-19. A contrite Sakaja addressed a press conference the next day where he not only apologised but resigned from his committee position.

He was fined Kshs 15,000 (about $150) by a Nairobi court, a punishment Kenyans dismissed as a slap on the wrist, considering that senators earn as much as Kshs 1 million per month. Like many countries in the world, Kenya is struggling to combat the disease that has all but brought the country to a standstill. In late July, the Ministry of Health ordered 100,000 body bags to dispose of the corpses of coronavirus victims, while most of the county governments have announced they are purchasing land to be used as public cemeteries to bury the COVID-19 dead. But by the end of August, there was not a single county that had started burials at the newly acquired cemeteries.

Meanwhile, schools remain closed, with the government saying some of the institutions will be turned into temporary hospitals if the situation deteriorates. As at July 28, Kenya had recorded 33,016 cases, 564 deaths and 19,296 recoveries. It was against this background that President Kenyatta in his address to the nation on July 3 asked for more caution from the public in fighting the pandemic. The head of state admitted that he was walking a tight rope, trying to balance containing the scourge while ensuring that the economy did not go into meltdown. Kenyatta’s dilemma mirrors that of his fellow African heads of state as they try to deal with a new enemy that respects no borders.

The continent’s leaders have had mixed reactions to the virus. Whereas President Kenyatta and his South African counterpart have opted to ban, ease, then re-ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, on the extreme side are the former Burundi head of state, Pierre Nkurunzisa, who famously declared that God himself had assured him that COVID-19 would not harm Burundians. Then he got ill and died on 8 June 2020. Although the government announced he had died from a heart attack, local news outlets claimed that he had succumbed to COVID-19. As Nkurunzisa lay dying in a rural hospital in his country, his wife, First Lady Denise Bucuma Nkurunzisa, was airlifted to Nairobi where she was treated and discharged in time for her husband’s burial.

Reports indicated that she was being treated for COVID-19, although the hospital, citing patient confidentiality, never responded to the media reports. Diplomatic sources were also quoted in sections of the Kenyan press, saying that President Kenyatta was under pressure to allow some top South Sudanese generals to get treated in Nairobi after they tested positive for COVID-19. South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar wrote to Kenya on 7 April, 2020 seeking to have a high-level person be allowed treatment in Kenya. However, the request appears to have been turned down.

People in an electronics shop watch President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing the nation on the coronavirus
on television in Nairobi, Kenya, July 2020 Photo: Simon Maina/AFP

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has flatly rejected any suggestions that his country could be in danger, and suggested Tanzanians go about their lives as usual, with no masks, no tests and no infection or deaths reported. Magufuli, who holds a doctorate degree in chemistry, has run into diplomatic turbulence with Kenya over his standpoint. In his national address on 27 July 2020, and without directly naming Magufuli, President Kenyatta spoke of “others” who were stifling information about the virus. A day after Kenyatta’s address, a plane carrying a Kenyan delegation to the burial of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa was turned back to Nairobi immediately after entering Tanzanian airspace.

Authorities on both sides blamed mechanical problems with the aircraft and bad weather, although the plane later landed safely in Nairobi and other planes landed in Tanzania on that day. In a tweet that was retweeted many times, the digital editor at The Star newspaper, Oliver Mathenge, said, “President Magufuli appears to have hit back after his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, insinuated that Tanzania was not honest about its COVID-19 situation. A Kenyan delegation to attend the burial of former Tanzania President Mkapa was not allowed to land today.” In Madagascar, tensions were reported after health minister Ahmad Ahmad wrote to the international community on 22 July 2020 to help the country deal with COVID-19.

This was in stark contrast to the position taken by President Andry Rajoelina, who has been vocal in his promotion of a herbal concoction which he has stated can prevent and cure the disease. The two divergent positions by the president and his health minister led to squabbles that came to a head on 20 August 2020, when the head of state fired the minister in a cabinet reshuffle. Initially, African countries were sitting pretty, smug in the false belief that COVID-19 was generally affecting people of Caucasian origin. As European countries like Spain and Italy reported infections and deaths in large numbers, African borders remained relatively safe. The trend was bucked when the disease reached the United States with reports that the black population there was the hardest hit.

Nonetheless, and probably by some divine providence, the wiping out of Africans as earlier predicted has not happened. With run-down health systems and other infrastructure, most experts were agreed that Africa would be hardest hit. However, with 1,196,298 cases, 28,021 deaths and 16,385,382 recoveries at the time of writing in the last week of August, Africa is not that badly off . But there is no time for African leaders and its health experts to rest on their laurels. One silver lining for Africa is that unlike other diseases where the ruling elite and their henchmen seek medical treatment abroad, with COVID-19 there is no such luxury, and it behoves the leaders to upgrade health facilities in their respective countries.


Tom Mboya is a Kenyan journalist working with an INGO in Nairobi. He was the 2009 Joel Belz International Media Fellow and the 2017 Coaching and Leadership Fellow, which is a programme offered by The Media Project and the Poynter Institute. His works have been published around the world.

A bright future for agro waste

Innovative social enterprises are recycling biowaste into affordable carbon-neutral biomass fuels in Kenya

Amid a monotonous din, Elizabeth Nyamai feeds cubes of peeled and washed tubers into an electric grater. Not even the noise from the grater dampens her determination to process the starch slurry that is dried and sold to food processing companies and other users.

Nyamai is the director of Veliz Foods, a food processing enterprise based in Machakos County, some 60 km from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Her firm supplies several food manufacturing companies with dried and semi-processed food products for making flour and blending with various food products. Crops processed include cassava, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and African leafy vegetables sourced from farmers in the region. 

However, of particular interest is how Veliz dries its food; the firm uses technology from BioAfriq Energy Limited, a Kenyan social enterprise that recycles bio-waste, sourced from thousands of farmers in south-eastern Kenya, into affordable carbon-neutral biomass fuels.  

Nyamai notes that she has lowered her production costs using BioAfriq’s briquettes and a drier bought from the enterprise. “My expenditure on electricity is low, yet I am able to dry my products in large quantities without undermining their quality,” she says. 

Elizabeth Nymai, director of Veliz Foods checks stock at her food processing plant. Photo: Justus Wanzala

James Ivisu, a founder of BioAfriq, says the biomass fuel is made crop waste that are thrown away. “We recycle them,” he says. The briquettes are sold to farmers who have bought driers, as well as to other users, as a substitute for charcoal, firewood or liquefied petroleum gas. 

James Ivisu, the director of Bioafriq Limited, holding an example of the briquettes his company makes. Photo Justus Wanzala

BioAfriq co-founder Dorine Achieng describes their focus as developing solutions for properly preserving produce, adding value and providing clean energy to households and light industry. Ivisu further explains that farmers in the area have in the past relied on the sun for drying produce, leaving them vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns. 

“It is a challenge to dry produce throughout the year,” he told Africa in Fact. “Farmers lose harvest that could actually be salvaged. It is estimated that Kenya loses produce worth 150 billion Kenya Shillings annually ($150m).” But, he adds, about 65% of what is lost could be salvaged through improved drying techniques. 

Ivisu says farmers had resorted to buying ordinary solar driers to preserve their farm produce, but these were unreliable, with drying taking longer and the produce becoming prone to bacteria infestation, which meant a loss of nutrients. The produce processed with ordinary solar driers also absorbed moisture at night, and drying had to be redone. “It is like defrosting and freezing meat for days on end, which inevitably affects its quality,” he says. “Our innovation offers solutions that can dry food faster and evenly, reducing losses  even when there is no sunlight.”  

Ivisu, who initially ventured into chicken keeping, says the high cost of charcoal he used to warm the chicken compelled him to explore viable and affordable alternatives. “I was buying 30 bags in a month at a cost that was depleting my profits,” he says. Furthermore, the place he was sourcing the charcoal from was fast losing its tree cover. “It pained me to realise that I was aiding in the destruction of the forest and I had to seek a solution.”

BioAfriq Energy Limited’s venture resonates with other African bio-energy enterprises that support similar initiatives. Kobus Venter, the chief executive officer of Vuthisa Technologies, a South African company that offers green technology solutions, says while southern African countries have been rather slow to take up biotechnical products, his company has partnered with the United States-based Legacy Foundation to provide training and technology services for biomass fuel briquette production. Communities in 11 countries have already benefited from the technology, Venter says. 

The technologies promoted use both biomass and agricultural waste made from agricultural as well as commercial residues such as weeds and carton boards. 

Referring to the ever-growing problems of poverty and deforestation caused by the widespread use of firewood and charcoal as energy in the absence of an affordable alternative, Venter says the small network of briquette makers at present does not have the capacity to provide for the level of demand.  He points out that entrepreneurs lack access to information and better marketing skills. “They need support for marketing products, branding and processing,” he notes. They also require information on assessment of thermal capacity, emissions and standards. 

Godfrey Sanga, the East Africa regional director for Energy 4 Impact, a non-profit organisation working with local businesses in East and West Africa to grow sustainable, clean energy markets, agrees that the use of briquettes in sub-Saharan Africa is still limited. “Poultry farmers do use them, but household use is smaller,” he says. Sanga points out that competing use of the materials used, for instance in animal feeds, limits availability of stock. “Lack of appropriate briquetting technology is another limitation,” he says.

The cost of purchasing and importing, operating and maintaining briquette-making machines, tax and duties are also a barrier to expanding production. There are other challenges to expanding the market and encouraging demand: long distances between producers and consumers mean high transportation costs, for example. 

Sanga does, however, believe there is scope to expand and upscale briquette manufacturing, suggesting linkages between potential agro-waste briquette manufacturers and potential buyers to enhance the exchange of information. There is also a need, he says, for further research into creating higher quality product and standardising machinery. “At the moment there is variation in quality and performance specifications such as calorific value, density, ash content, moisture content and size,” he observes. 

Kevin Gikonyo, the social entrepreneurship leader at Hivos East Africa, an organisation that supports transitions towards renewable energy, says they implemented a briquette production programme in the Somali regional state of Ethiopia and have learnt valuable lessons.    

The project uses the Jatropha plant (Jatropha curcas) and other invasive species in the region to make briquettes, and there are plans to introduce bamboo. “We have targeted refugees and host communities on a 50:50 grant share allocation in the Deka-suftu, Suftu and Dollo Ado areas,” Gikonyo says, adding that the project has included the technical skills transfer of entrepreneurship expertise, briquette production and the manufacturing of fuel-saving stoves and their parts. 

The three-year project, supported by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency among other donors, ends in early 2021.

“The overall impact so far has been reduced environmental degradation, and fewer chores for women used to travelling distances to fetch firewood,” says Gikonyo.

While widespread use of the technology is still some way away, Venter’s optimism suggests a bright future for agro-waste as a source of clean energy in Africa.  

“Maybe this is foolish to western trained business managers, but when it works, it works well. It is in a way, a real benefit to being on the front edge of the growth of a new process for combating climate instability,” Venter says. For BioAfriq Energy Limited it is about affordability, environment conservation and food security, while Veliz Foods is witness to a green promise. 

Justus Wanzala is a Kenyan journalist who writes on the environment, climate change, agriculture and practical technologies as well as sustainable development and social issues. Currently, he works for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and as a freelancer/contributor for various publications across the globe.

Going to waste

Solar power: the dark side

Traded as environmentally sound, solar power leaves waste that could engulf Africa in the same way as plastic

Street lights powered by solar power in Oti province, northern Togo, February 2020. The Togolese government and private sector is installing mini solar power plants in different localities to enable rural communities access to subsidised electricity Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

Daniel Wesonga, a resident of Moi Farm village in western Kenya, is a happy man since purchasing a small solar lamp the size of a medium cup, which also has a high frequency radio. He is now sure of light and entertainment, two things that are about to change his otherwise boring and dark village nights. The 47-year-old father of six has depended on a paraffin lamp, which he says is expensive, considering that he has spent an average of Sh30 ($0.30) of his daily wage of Sh150 ($1.50) as a bicycle repairer on kerosene to ensure his children do their homework for at least three hours every night.

”I bought this on hire purchase, after paying a deposit of Sh600 ($6),” Wesonga told Africa in Fact. “I now have a balance of a similar amount to be paid over the next six months to wholly own the gadget. Farewell to kerosene and messy soot!” Almost every household in the tiny village on the bank of the River Nzoia has a solar gadget, thanks to aggressive marketing by solar firms that have focused especially on rural Africa, where the majority of homesteads are yet to be connected to the power grid. Asked what he will do with the small solar gadget if becomes faulty, Wesonga rubs his thin pale palms on his bushy face. ”I’ll just throw it away, what else can I do?”

Wesonga, just like tens of millions of other people in Africa who have heeded the sustainability agenda and embraced solar power, is clueless on how to handle solar waste. Their governments, which have generously provided incentives to solar firms to ensure high uptake, are not helping either. For instance, Kenya lifted all Value Added Tax (VAT) charges on imported solar products in 2014, and zero-rated import duty on solar imports to motivate households to adopt the cheaper and environmentally friendly energy.

Yet the country has no waste policy to curb mass dumping of photovoltaic panels, which have short lifespans, just like any other electronic gadget. Renewable energy expert Jacob Ng’eno, of African Solar Designs based in Nairobi, says that while solar energy is traded as environmentally sustainable, growing mountains of broken or otherwise non-functioning panels that are likely to be disposed of in two or three decades will wreck the environment.

The Global E-waste Monitor (2017): regional e-waste

In 2016, Asia was the region that generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh; however, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

A call centre bearing solar panels on its rooftop supplies power in a village without electricity in Seguela, Côte d’Ivoire, 2013 Photo: Sia Kambou / AFP

A property developer who violates the rules risks a year in prison or a $10,000 (Sh1 million) fine or both. The standard lifespan of solar gadgets ranges from 20 to 30 years, which means that some of the panels installed in the early part of the current boom are not far from their expiry date. Yet, the country’s e-waste draft Bill 2013 continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves seven years on. Nor is it a priority for the 12th parliament that will exit office in 2021. By then, every person in the world will have at least seven kg of e-waste to dispose of every day, up from 6.1 kg, as captured in the United Nations Global e-waste Monitor, 2017.”Solar waste will soon form a huge part of electronic waste,” Ng’eno said.

“And it’s not easy to recycle. Solar waste will outdo plastic waste, which has wrecked the world in past decades.” He urged African states to come up with urgent plans to deal with e-waste. The Kenyan government’s soft heart for solar traders has seen at least 20,000 additional families acquire solar gadgets. In 2017, Kenya enforced regulations compelling hotels, educational centres and residential buildings to install solar water heating systems, with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2030.

According to that report, the photovoltaic panels associated with solar energy are classified as “large equipment”. The solar waste menace is likely to get ugly in Nigeria, which is a boom market for solar firms, occasioned by high population and extreme poverty. Like Kenya, the western African nation has attracted a significant amount of solar Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the past decade, especially in rural and home solar and photovoltaic (PV) electrification.

In Kenya, solar importers have to meet basic requirements – such as obtaining a class V2 licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), which entitles them to carry out the manufacture or import of solar PV systems or components. Nigeria’s market, meanwhile, is grossly unregulated. This has led to a market in sub-standard solar power products, which have much lower lifespans, and it will inevitably result in considerable e-waste. A recent study by the World Bank placed Nigeria among countries in the world with poor electricity penetration.

High levels of power outages (at least 32.8 in a month) have made the inhabitants of Africa’s most populous nation easy prey for unscrupulous solar vendors. Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) action plan dated December 2019. Most of this will be installed off-grid, while Nigeria aims to have about 40 million batteries, according to an Institute of Development Studies (IDS) publication of December 2016. But the typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to the 20-25 year average lifespan of PV panels.

A solar oven used for solar cooking in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2009 Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP

So this means that over the lifetime of this project about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and recycled to achieve 30,000 MW solar PV capacity. Most of them will find their way into domestic garbage bins. A similar fate awaits other African countries with similar solar power targets in terms of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) of 2015, which calls for the continent to install 300 GW of solar power by 2030. It is perhaps what motivated the Nigerian government to introduce taxes on solar products in February 2018. There’s now a 5% import duty on solar panels and 5% VAT, whereas in the past there were no tariffs on solar panels.

Nigeria also slapped a 20% import duty on solar batteries, to discourage mass imports. Rwanda is one of few countries in the region to have put in place tight regulations to combat the impending solar waste chaos. In July 2014, Rwanda introduced regulations to guide solar water heater dealers, to regulate the market and also to protect consumers from unscrupulous firms. The country’s solar water heating regulations are meant to support the government’s ambitious programme to install 12,000 quality solar water heaters countrywide – which should translate to a saving of 23,328 MHw on the national grid by the end of this year.

Tough penalties have also been set for suppliers and technicians who fail to meet the minimum standards, a move which protects against the dumping of substandard goods. “These regulations are intended to provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the design, installation, operation, repair, maintenance and upgrade of solar water heating systems in Rwanda,” according to the draft regulation issued by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura). The regulation also sets minimum academic qualifications and professional requirements for technicians of solar water heaters in the country.

Those found violating the rules face cash penalties that range from Rwf10,000 – Rwf5 million ($10.50 to $5,300) depending on the offence. Despite these measures, solar firms continue to troop to Rwanda, thanks to the government’s tax policy, which imposes an almost zero rate on solar products, with the aim of reducing the country’s heavy dependency on thermal electricity. In addition to offering tax exemptions, the Rwandan government is meeting 25% of the cost of imported solar power water heaters. Each heater costs between Rwf800,000 and Rwf900,000 (about $900) on the open market in Kigali.

The country is now a significant importer of solar gadgets, which are fast becoming a dependable source of energy, especially in rural areas that are yet to be connected to the national power grid. Yet, as the number of imports into Africa increase each year, so does the solar waste pile, polluting rivers, soils and the air when burnt. In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a multi-country study to research electronic waste in Africa’s off-grid renewable energy sector. The report concluded that the off-grid solar sector across 14 sub- Saharan African countries would produce 3,600 tonnes of electronic waste the following year.

While this represented a fractional percentage of total estimated electronic waste flows, it also put waste from off-grid solar products on a par with electronic waste from the mobile phone industry. Globally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects solar waste to hit 78 million tonnes by 2050, most of it in Africa.

E-waste generation and collection per continent

Indicator Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania
Countries in region 53 35 49 40 13
Population (millions) 1,174 977 4,364 738 39
Waste generation (kg/inh) 1.9 11.6 4.2 16.6 17.3
Indication WG (Mt) 2.2 11.3 18.2 12.3 0.7
Documented to be collected and recycled (Mt) 0.004 1.9 2.7 4.3 0.04
Collection rate 0% 17% 15% 35% 6%

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna


Victor Amadala is an award-winning journalist with hundreds of published works in local and international outlets. He is currently a senior business writer for the Star Newspaper, the third-leading paper in Kenya. A Thomson Reuters New Age Media Fellow, he is passionate about developmental journalism for positive change in Africa.
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