A social enterprise in Kenya helps people at the grassroots level through its zero-waste manufacture of biofuel from an otherwise ‘useless’ nut.
by Portia Ladrido
Besides being home to Olympic long-distance runners, Kenya bursts of exotic wildlife. The East African country has a quirky streak of natural resources that has attracted tourists from all over the globe. With 19 national parks blanketing the entire nation, going into the tourism business seems like the best way to maximise the country’s potential. But Alan Paul isn’t like any other entrepreneur.
Born and brought up in Africa to European parents, Paul ventured into a completely different field and founded Eco Fuels Kenya, a social enterprise that produces natural biofuel for East Africa. It started six years ago when he was asked by academics from Kenya and the US to evaluate the value chain of a tree species that produced croton nuts. He took on the project, did his due diligence, and immediately saw the limitless possibilities that could come out from this unpopular plant.
“These trees are ubiquitous across tropical East Africa, as they don’t exist in North Africa or Southern Africa, and they do not exist in any other continent. This is a very peculiar species to East Africa but it is widespread and it has no other commercial or personal use,” Paul says.
“The tree is not good for furniture or structural use, the fruit cannot be used as a food by humans or animals, so it lends itself perfectly to be converted into oil, which can ideally be used in engines and machines without having the usual debate of food versus fuel.”
EFK Group executes a sustainable supply chain whereby the croton nuts are harvested by smallholder farmers, then are purchased by the enterprise, and finally, the nuts go into EFK’s zero-waste manufacturing process to produce biofuel.
Paul explains that the particular business model does not require more than two hours a day and individuals can earn in those two hours considerably more than they could in other activities so it’s very much supplementary to their existing way of life.
“The business empowers people at the grassroots level, at the base of the pyramid, to earn additional income without having to abandon their current way of living. This business model means people can enjoy their rural way of life, small hold of farming, or community engagement and at the same time earn additional income.”
The local farmers usually live on less than $1.25/day but the EFK Group has predicted that croton harvesters who collect massive volumes of the produce can earn an additional $400/year from this activity. The group has also found that in the agricultural setting in Kenya and most of East and Southern Africa, women are inundated with work – from gathering firewood and collecting water to tilling the fields and harvesting.
Paul says that women share a disproportionately high percentage of the work effort required as men are usually employed in towns away from home, so the females are left on the land. The group found that 85 percent of their engaged workforce is made up of women and 43 percent of them use their croton money on school fees for their children and grandchildren, 24 percent on items for their household, and 32 percent on animal feeds and fertiliser.
As EFK is continuing to support more local farmers in earning additional income on top of the production of an environmentally-friendly alternative to diesel, Paul hopes that they would be able to duplicate their supply chain in agricultural sectors nationwide.
“What we would like to see now as a team and as a group of individuals is the folding and unfolding of further enterprises along the same model in a larger geographic content and multiplying the effect on the ground. We have the vision to see this business model replicated across the region.”
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.