Said Twahir is co-founder of Kencoco, a Kenya-based company that makes charcoal briquettes from recycled coconut waste and charcoal dust. The briquettes are a low-cost alternative to environmentally damaging fuels such as firewood, kerosene and wood charcoal. Previously, Twahir ran a transport business and a computer college at the Kenyan coast. He tells How we made it in Africa about the opportunities in transforming agricultural waste into energy.
1. Tell us more about your company.
We make briquettes from coconut shells, husks and other biomass materials, which are abundantly available in the coastal regions of Kenya. I was inspired to start Kencoco by the high volumes of coconut waste laying all along the coast. I found it interesting that coconut husks was going to waste on farms, yet it could be used to make briquettes. Where else can you get a raw material that is almost free?
We have a three-acre piece of land in Kikambala, Kilifi County where we produce and dry our coconut charcoal briquettes. Our customers are mainly households, restaurants, beach hotels, schools and a few manufacturing companies. Our clients are people who have been using charcoal but are now switching to briquettes. This is because our coconut charcoal briquettes are odourless, smokeless and have long burning and heating capacity compared with wood charcoal and firewood. It takes just 30 minutes to boil githeri (a popular Kenyan dish of a mixture of maize and beans), yet with wood charcoal you need several hours. And by offering clean energy, Kencoco also contributes to slowing deforestation and assisting waste management. The coconut shells and husks we use as raw materials are mostly collected by women who also play a key role in retailing the final product.
2. How did you finance your start-up?
I raised capital from my family. Together with my brothers and sister we raised US$10,000 to up the production building and we have since invested about $30,000. We still need to invest an additional $60,000 to $80,000 for a transport fleet so we can reach customers in far flung areas. We have big expansion plans. In the various regions of Kenya we could use the most readily available waste products to make cleaner energy and reduce the cutting of trees. In Mumias (western Kenya) we can use sugarcane fibre waste, in central Kenya we can use macadamia nut shells… we could turn all this waste into energy.
3. If you were given $1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?
I would convert our entire three-acres of land into a renewable energy plant. We are only using a third of the land at the moment. I would set up a factory for cooking stoves and start manufacturing wood pellets. I would modernise our briquettes factory and get better machines that can roll out higher volumes. If we make cheaper coconut briquettes we will be able to compete favourably with wood charcoal dealers.
4. What has been your biggest mistake, and what have you learnt from it?
I think I wasn’t very serious in the beginning. I should have taken this more seriously from the word go. Initially I was just doing it as a hobby until people made me realise this could become big business. So I wasted a year doing small scale production when we should have planned for a big scale operation right from the start.
5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.
The first time I looked at the briquettes coming out of the production line at our factory. I am always excited when I hear people talk about how they like our coconut charcoal briquettes. My family is sick and tired of hearing about briquettes, because it’s what I talk about all day long.