The complete coconut briquettes drying in Said Twahir's enterprise.

Janet Murikira

In Kenya, a man’s quest to save trees drives success for his business and the planet

Watching his grandmother suffocate from thick smoke every time she cooked a meal, 54-year-old Said Twahir of Mombasa, Kenya thought something needed to be done to provide a cleaner fuel alternative to households and to protect the biodiversity in his country.

“There was a lot of smoke coming from her house and she was really coughing” Twahir said of his then 84-year-old grandmother. 

In 2014, Twahir fidgeted with the idea of establishing a coconut oil business which was lucrative in coastal Kenya because of abundant coconuts. 

The booming industry, however, accumulated heaps of discarded coconut shells which have become a waste menace as they took time to biodegrade.

Coconut shells at Said Twahir's workstation.

Janet Murikira

This, and his grandmother’s worsening health, gave Twahir the idea: He attempted to replace wood-based fuel in Kenya with briquettes from coconut shells.

He went on to establish Kencoco Limited, which today produces approximately 300 tonnes of coconut shell briquettes annually. 

Though a fraction of the 1.6 million tonnes of wood charcoal produced in Kenya, this has made Twahir hopeful that Kenyans can embrace environmentally sustainable fuel alternatives soon and take urgent action to save Kenya’s forest trees, the country’s buffer against climate change.

According to the UN environment, approximately 90% of the wood consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily used for fuel. Of this number, up to 96% of wood fuel burning happens in East Africa where Kenya is located.

Last year, the UN Environment warned that charcoal business in neighboring Somalia could lead to the depletion of decade old baobab trees.

Eva Muller, director of policy and resources, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said in the report that charcoal has been an important source of energy for centuries and remains so today, and demand for charcoal as fuel will continue to increase especially in Africa.

“In many countries, however, a lack of regulation means that the charcoal sector is inefficient and can have locally and nationally significant impact on forests,” she said. 

Globally, the wood fuel sector is a substantial emitter of  greenhouse gases, and is estimated to contribute up to 7% of total anthropogenic emissions.

Wood from a felled tree near the Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kenya.  

Janet Murikira

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that five tonnes of hardwood are needed to produce one tonne of charcoal.

This has put a strain on the dwindling forest cover in Kenya, making it hard for the country to fulfill its commitment to the Paris Agreement to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 30% in 2030, which it plans to achieve through various strategies including increasing its forest cover by up to 10% from the current 6%.

Last year following a public outcry, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued a ban on logging and some counties outlawed charcoal trade.

This has had a positive impact not only on the environment but also on Twahir’s business. Twahir said,

Other than small scale households, Twahir’s clients include ecolodges who are keen on conserving the environment.

“I supply briquettes to 6 hotels in Mombasa and beyond,” he said. 

In an effort to examine the amount of carbon emitted by coconut briquettes, last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology picked samples of briquettes produced by Twahir’s enterprise.

Though the institution has not yet released its findings, Twahir hopes the findings can help him make his briquettes cleaner.

“I started making coconut shell briquettes to provide clean fuel to the millions who cannot afford fuel such biogas. It is my hope that such research institutions can educate me on how to make my goal a reality,” he said.

Kenyan businessman Said Twahir holds coconut briquettes at his workstation.

Janet Murikira