A Global Village
Issue 10 » Gender Economics

Women’s Empowerment in Kenya

Trading Fuel Briquettes

Mary Njenga, University of Nairobi & World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

Fuel briquette technology is a promising alternative source of energy that could address unmet needs for cooking fuel, driven by rapid urbanisation and population growth in Kenya. Increased demand for briquettes creates a number of socio-economic opportunities, in particular for women and low-income earners. There are also favorable environmental considerations when comparing briquettes to the current most common source of fuel, charcoal.

Today, charcoal is the principal fuel source for 82% of urban and 34% of rural households1 in Kenya. However, desperate to put food on the table for their families, women in mainly poor urban households will often also use other unhealthy fuel sources such as old shoes or used plastic containers2.  Energy shortages and high costs often lead these poorer households to cook meals that require less time to prepare, irrespective of their nutritional value.

In rural areas firewood, collected mainly by women and children, is the primary source of cooking fuel. Its collection is both physically exhausting and time-consuming and in some areas, journeys can be up to a 40 km round trip. Time spent on this activity could be otherwise used more productively, e.g. in agricultural or paid labour. Firewood is also expensive: a study in three rural villages in Kenya indicated that 15%-35% of a household’s income is spent on fuel3, a figure that has increased in the past few years.

In the current environment poor communities, and especially women and youth, are turning to fuel briquette making, either individually or as organised self-help groups. The market for this product is also broader than just domestic cooking fuel, as it is being used in food kiosks, hotels, and institutions such as schools, chicken hatcheries and bakeries, making it a more attractive economic opportunity for these communities.

Women Working Together
A household survey conducted in Kibera showed that all the fuel briquette producers are women. This activity is integrated in their daily schedule and gives them an opportunity to work collectively.

It also allows them to establish a traditional system of saving and lending amongst themselves, enabling independence and flexibility in their financial affairs. For example, individuals make contributions as low as Ksh10 (US $0.1) and a member is allowed to lend as little as Ksh100 (US $1.3). Solidarity gives them a sense of belonging that builds social capital and makes them more resilient.

In the Kibera study, households that produced briquettes for home use made savings of over 70%, while those who purchased them saved 30%. The highest savings of 82% were noted amongst the low-income households, which spent US $40 per year on cooking fuel compared to US $223 spent by their counterpart households not using charcoal briquettes4.

Women in Kenya produce fuel briquettes by shaping and mounding charcoal dust mixed with soil and water. [Mary Njenga, CGIAR] 

Due to the increasing difficulty in acquiring fuel in rural areas, Milka, mother of two and member of Kahawa Soweto Youth in Action self-help group in Nairobi, makes a living by producing and transporting fuel briquettes from urban to rural areas. She sells fuel briquettes in a village 80km West of Nairobi.  Women in this village are choosing to purchase fuel briquettes instead of collecting firewood, saving precious time to work in their own or neighbouring farms.

A related source of income for these women is training people interested in the enterprise, creating further employment opportunities for young people. This helps to address urban insecurity and crime.

Savings and direct income are then often used for food purchases, especially animal protein sources such as eggs, meat and milk, as well as the payment of school fees, rent and health care expenses. This is in line with commonly observed household improvements as a result of female empowerment.

that produced
briquettes for 
home use saved 
over 70%, while 
those who 
purchased them 
saved 30%

Environmental Impact
Briquettes are produced by compressing biomass material such as charcoal dust, sawdust and other wood residues or agricultural by-products – collected for minimal cost – into a uniform solid unit5.

The process is highly manual: charcoal dust is mixed with soil and water; the mixture is then shaped into briquettes using plastic containers and left to dry. Because of limited space in poor urban neighbourhoods they are often dried on rooftops and roadsides.
The use of briquettes helps to lower deforestation caused by charcoal and firewood production, which is highly desirable since Kenya’s forest cover levels are below 2%.

A further environmental benefit is the use of recycled materials in briquettes. Nairobi for instance, generates 2,000 tonnes of waste, only 40% of which is collected and disposed of properly6. As in many cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 70% of this waste is biodegradable, presenting a huge potential for briquettes.

Promoting Briquette Business
For briquette-making communities to prosper and bring their full potential to bear, local authorities need to provide increased assistance to these small enterprises, in particular to the construction of appropriate infrastructure such as beds for drying and selling, as well as stores. Access to water needs to be provided at a reasonable cost, acknowledging fuel briquettes as a productive commercial sector.

The use of briquettes helps
to lower deforestation 
caused by charcoal and
firewood production, which 
is highly desirable since 
Kenya’s forest cover levels
are below 2%

Despite the substantial impact of this technology, women’s groups today operate primarily individually. There is a need to bring them together and better coordinate their activities so as to strengthen their voice in calling for the provision of key resources such as secure leased space. This would help to turn today’s fuel briquette enterprises into full time employment opportunities and allow for better training and knowledge sharing to improve production quality and efficiency.

Mary Njenga is a doctoral research fellow in environmental science at the Department of Land Resource Management and Agricultural Technology (LARMAT) University of Nairobi, Kenya, and World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), where she is currently studying combustion and emission qualities of fuel briquettes and the implications of this technology on livelihoods and the environment.

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[1] Ministry of Energy (MoE), Government of Kenya (2002) Study on Kenya’s energy demand, supply and policy strategy for households, small scale industries and service establishments, Final Report, May, KAMFOR Company Ltd.
[2] Gathui, T., and Ngugi, W. (2010) Bioenergy and Poverty in Kenya: Attitudes, Actors and Activities. Working Paper. Practical Action Consulting.
[3] Wamukonya L. (1994) Energy consumption in three rural Kenyan households: A survey. Biomass and Bioenergy 8 (issue 6): 445-451.
[4] Njenga. M., Yonemitsu, A., Karanja, N., Iiyama, M., Kithinji, J., Dubbeling M., Sundberg, C and Jamnadass, R. (2013) Implications of charcoal briquette produced by local communities on livelihoods and environment in Nairobi, Kenya. International Journal of Renewable Energy Development (IJRED), 2 (issue 1): 19-29.
[5] Sotannde, O.A., Oluyege A.O . and Abah G.B. (2010) Physical and combustion properties of charcoal briquettes from neem wood residues. Int. Agrophysics, 24: 189-194.
[6] ITDG-EA (2003) ‘Nairobi solid waste management network’ [Online], Available by WasteNet http://www.wastenet.or.ke/ (accessed 11 February 2004).