Of all the business ideas they ever thought of investing in, making briquettes never featured on the list.
However, today, David Nderitu and Lillian Njeri depend on briquettes for livelihood.
The couple owns Imarisha Eco Products Ltd, a company that produces and sells carbonised charcoal briquettes. It’s located in Thaithi village of Kirimukuyu location, Mathira sub-County in Nyeri County.
Mr Nderitu, the company’s executive director pinpoints the start of the business as “bouncing onto an opportunity when it presents itself.”
In 2017, he was working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that engaged him to conduct a baseline study in Solio, an internally displaced person settlement scheme.
The study was seeking to understand the area population’s energy requirements.
“We were astonished to know that families were struggling to put a meal on the table due to a lack of affordable cooking fuel. Children would chase after cows to get dung, dry and then use it,” he recalls.
At that time, two pieces of firewood would cost Sh100. That was too expensive for the majority of the households.
Nderitu also found out that residents complained of eyes and respiratory diseases, especially among children and women, caused by smoky kitchens.
“I knew residents needed urgent intervention on clean fuel that could reduce the costs and also respiratory diseases,” he says. That gave him an idea of clean and affordable cooking solutions. Together with his wife, they resolved to venture into safer and cheaper carbonised charcoal briquettes.
Fortune in waste
They were living in a rented house in Nyeri town, near the heaps of waste charcoal dust dumped by charcoal dealers.
The couple briefly researched how to produce carbonised charcoal briquettes and discovered the formula.
In less than a month, they had produced briquettes which were ready for sale and use. Residents rushed for the briquettes because they were cheaper.
“We sold at Sh30, unlike the firewood that cost Sh100 or ordinary charcoal for Sh80 a tin,” recalls Njeri.
Despite being cheap, the business took longer to pick as it required demonstrations – many residents had never used briquettes before.
Along the way, more customers trooped in, mostly through referrals and from their social media platforms. Meanwhile, as their customer base grew, the couple started facing challenges in production.
Living and working in a rented house, Njeri recalls, came with the challenge of getting a place to dry their briquettes as demand grew.
And when they got a place, they had to take the briquettes outside to dry.
“The worst of it was during rainy days. We couldn’t take them out at all. It took us almost three weeks to dry. And as you know, it’s during rainy or cold times that many clients came for briquettes to warm their houses,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Nderitu explains they kept producing briquettes. Along the way, the couple met a Global Philanthropy Alliance which supported them with Sh500,000. This helped them purchase a motorised machine and a crusher.
Later, he met the Rainforest Alliance, which was looking for entrepreneurs in clean energy space.
“The organisation offered us technical support and business advisory which made us better in what we do.
They assisted us to take our products to Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) for testing and also ensured we join others in an association United Briquettes Producers Association (UBPA) where we share and engage the government,” he says.
They also got a solar drier that could dry their briquettes within a shorter period.
On production, Nderitu explains, they do on average 20kgs to 50kg bags of briquettes a day with the use of a locally fabricated machine.
He projects to produce 10 tonnes a day with an efficient machine. Without revealing how much they rake in, Nderitu says briquettes are a worthwhile business.
They have markets within their neighbourhood of Mathira, Nyeri town, Karatina, and Mukurwe-ini, among other places in the Central region.
Their customers include households, chicken farmers, schools, hotels and restaurants.
Since 2017, the couple had been selling only briquettes until the beginning of last year when they started selling energy-saving Jikos.
“Our business not only ensures consistent supplies of clean cooking solutions like briquettes and cook stoves to households but also reduces tree cutting, minimises carbon emissions and also reduces pollution in urban areas,” says Njeri.
In her marketing initiatives, Njeri reveals to her clients how energy-saving Jikos go well with carbonised briquettes.
“Once we get from suppliers, I educate our clients of the need to shift from ordinary to energy-saving Jikos, because of health matters since they do not produce smoke, and are friendly to our environment,” she explains.
To increase their customer base, Njeri visits women groups (chamas) where she markets their business.
To her, targeting women groups has been effective since they are the ones involved in cooking, so they easily understand and purchase.
The price of their eco-friendly jikos ranges from Sh3,300 to Sh5,500.
The couple confides that in the next five years, they will have started their own energy-saving Jikos company.
They also want to invest more in the briquettes industry and produce more since the number of customers continues to increase.
“We want to invest in a machine that can produce already dried briquettes, to save us times of drying,” she reveals.
The process starts with collecting charcoal wastes from charcoal vendors and sawdust from timber millers.
These are mixed with binders, which are either made from maize flour or molasses.
Mostly, they use maize flour because it is easily available.
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