Trial, error, innovation and impact – a story of context-driven, clean energy solutions for Zambia

15-01-2020, Lusaka, Zambia

With a mission to end the use of charcoal for cooking, an innovative approach from Emerging Cooking Solutions (ECS) hoped to diminish the number of air pollution-related deaths and to put a stop to the rapid deforestation taking place across Africa. The plan was to start in Zambia – a challenging country to work in due to the large and broadly dispersed rural and peri-urban population.

Eight-year-old Dorkas helps her grandmother prepare the family’s food indoors, a task that would previously result in high levels of carbon monoxide in the home – a result of cooking on charcoal. The SupaMoto stove uses pellets out of sustainable forestry waste and reduces cooking time by up to 75% resulting in a cleaner environment inside and out. By reducing reliance on charcoal, SupaMoto clients are also helping to conserve Zambia’s environment which has been hindered by high levels of deforestation – predominantly for fuel. 

But the ambitious plan required major changes as the Zambian context posed significant challenges. The company sought new innovative approaches to old problems – some of which worked, some of which failed, and some of which are thriving, making a significant difference in the lives of Zambians across the country.

Innovation challenged

 

The company identified pigeon pea by-products as a possible option for the biomass pellets. Pigeon pea is a leguminous plant that is eaten extensively in India. “It has some amazing properties. It is extremely healthy and the plant grows in poor depleted soils and, being nitrogen fixating, it helps rejuvenate the soil,” explained ECS Co-founder and Business Development Head, Marion Peterson. The plant has a woody stalk and high-protein green leaves that are great for fodder. It is also recommended as a suitable intercrop as it improves the growth of maize reducing the amount of fertiliser needed.

“Our idea was to use the stalks to make pellets and to offer the farmers a cash crop that would improve their economy. This would allow them to buy our solar products and stove and pellets,” explained Peterson. Unsurprisingly she said, a pilot programme of 200 farmers “absolutely loved the idea and signed up”. After receiving training, the farmers were given seeds, incorporating them into their crops. 

“Unfortunately the market for pigeon peas collapsed, because India closed their doors to imported pigeon peas. There was no other market, so although we had set a price and collected pigeon peas for payments, we did not have anywhere to sell them,” said Peterson. At the same time, the farmers did not follow the recommended plan and either planted the seeds alone or too late, or not at all. Therefore, many had no peas to use as payment. “As for the stalks, they made excellent pellets, but the production was low and the logistics of gathering the stalks proved to be too complex and costly.” Despite a seemingly fool-proof plan with multiple benefits, context and a shift in international trends seemed to bring the pilot programme down. But as pigeon peas were off the table, it allowed for the exchange of another commodity – maize, allowing farmers to trade their crops for solar systems and clean cooking solutions.

Turning up the “clean” heat

 

ECS, trading as SupaMoto in Zambia, pioneered the use of pelletised waste-biomass for heating on the continent, developing clean and affordable alternatives to traditional charcoal-based cooking. What followed was the development of a cost effective stove built specifically for the pellets and today the stoves are used in rural households, urban apartments and large, industrial kitchens. According to ECS, the company has developed the world’s “cleanest burning low-cost stove”.

“We make pellets out of sustainable forestry waste and we sell stoves that run on pellets instead of charcoal. Our stoves are built with an internal combustion system that produces clean gas emissions from the pellets—producing a hot, clean flame. This reduces cooking time by as much as 75%, allows for indoor cooking, and keeps carbon monoxide at bay. Our stove's flame is so strong, it's more energy efficient than even an electric stove,” said Peterson.

And the innovation has had great appeal with thousands of stoves being sold, requiring the construction of Zambia’s first pellet-factory to ensure charcoal can be widely replaced with pelletised waste-biomass. Together with solar solutions, the company believes SupaMoto could serve as a model for many countries to change the energy landscape of Africa.

“By cooking with Supamoto, you ensure that you and your family are not inhaling the dangerous amount of carbon-monoxide fumes produced by charcoal. It also is safer for children to play around without the risk of getting burned. Your family spends a lot of time near the stove, so we've created a technology that allows you to rest assured that their health is preserved.”

The pellets are also up to 40% cheaper than charcoal, suggesting the cost of a new specialised stove will quickly see a return in investment – something important for the company and the award-winning Beyond the Grid Fund for Africa, of which the company is a part of.

“Extraordinary” impact

 

SupaMoto’s solar and cooking solutions have had an “extraordinary impact” on Zambian life, said Peterson. “I have witnessed villages coming out of darkness, people having longer days to work and play, and children being able to read and do homework. As for the stove, women are claiming they save hours per day, and half their income used on charcoal, even though they are paying slowly for a stove. One woman with a family of three told me she can do all her cooking and provide warm water for bathing with 20kg of pellets per month. Another with a family of nine said she did the same with 40kg per month, spending 150 kwacha instead of 300 kwacha.

Under the Beyond the Grid Fund for Zambia, the company has been moving into all regions of the country focusing on solar solutions in rural areas and cooking solutions in urban and peri-urban settings.

“By providing affordable, renewable, high-quality home energy to the most vulnerable populations in Zambia, SupaMoto is tackling one of the great challenges of helping people getting out of poverty,” said Mattias Olson, ECS Co-founder and CEO. “Our unique approach to Clean Cooking and our innovative business model for Offgrid Solar has required substantial efforts, investments and trial and error over many years. We are finally seeing the fruits and have entered a phase of rapid scale-up. I’m really excited that we are now able to transform the lives of so many, while building a sustainable business.”

The company has sold more than 9,000 Clean Cooking Solutions, 100 institutional stoves and 6,000 Solar Home Systems to date, while the company’s marketing message on deforestation has helped villages to preserve trees, now understanding the adverse effects of cutting down trees and its impact on climate change.

 

Photo credit: Jason Mulikita for REEEP