A full-value business chain right up to the shebeen
Sitting in a shebeen (township bar) in Soweto, listening to gospel music and waiting for coffee to come to the boil was an odd way to begin any day, so I felt a little funny. But not as funny as Molefi felt, bustling about making the coffee in response to my surprising request for a proper demonstration of the workings of the 5 Star Stove, in his sister's shebeen in Soweto.
Molefi, clad in a black vest, red cap and tattoo-covered arm, was the type of person I would have dreaded to bump into without escorts (for me) on any South African street, let alone a township, and worst of all, Soweto. But he seemed to be a gentle enough soul as he was introduced to us as an Agent of the Blue Disa cooking pellets and 5-Star Stove. He was the tail end of a "full clean value chain business", as described by Anna Tarvainen, Finland's Counsellor for Natural Resources and Energy at the Embassy in South Africa.
The business is part of the Blue Disa Agricultural Project, which covers the full stretch from the purchase of agricultural waste as inputs for a pellet-manufacturing plant whose pellets are then sold to be used as the main combustion or energy source for the locally-manufactured 5 Star Stoves.
The shorter version of that chain is that Blue Disa Agriculture turns biomass and organic waste into energy in the townships.
Inputs, enterprises, and outcomes
That's at least three business enterprises in one: The agricultural inputs - where communities are encouraged to grow crops from which agricultural waste results for sale; the agricultural waste processed into the biomass pellets for use in clean cook stoves; the supply of those pellets and clean cook stoves through an agent retail system that employs people like Molefi.
As he tried to put my coffee together, Molefi was overwhelmed by my request for profit calculations from his enterprise, but was confident that it made money for him one way or another.
"Plus, it's clean and doesn't produce a lot of smoke," he said, part-reciting the lesson he had learnt when he being trained on sign-up but also out of a conviction built from observation. "With the pellets we use less kerosene and it cooks faster also. So it is cheaper!"
At the 5 Star Stoves website the comparison is made between the pellets and all other forms of energy - electricity, coal, paraffin, wood and gas - and the pellets and 5 Star Stoves come out much cheaper under the same conditions, at R4 per day followed by gas and electricity at R6 per day.
Tradition and technologies
Seeing him putting the pellets into action was the second step in my interaction with the process. The pellets themselves (see below) looked suspiciously smelly because of their resemblance to many other things one encounters in an agricultural setting, but were totally benign to the nose. They felt like they were wrapped in a plastic membrane and wouldn't burn for ages, but Molefi set them aflame with the help of a little kerosene and, a few minutes later, switching on the bit of technology that makes the 5-star stove quite different from the usual, and making it clearer to me why it looked so much like a radio.
At the bottom of the 5-star stove is a compartment for two AA-batteries, and a switch that when Molefi flicked it on, activated a small fan whose role was to fan the flame underneath the pellets and increase the intensity of the heat.
"When you do that it burns for longer and cooks food faster. With traditional stoves you have to blow with your mouth and you inhale a lot of smoke," he explained.
According to the Global Alliance For Clean Cookstoves, at www.cleancookstoves.org, which manufactures and supports the 5-star stoves and other such innovations, 8.5 million people out of South Africa's 45million population are affected by Household Air Pollution (HAP) and the country registers 3,200 deaths per year to this cause - compared to only 1,100 deaths per year to Outdoor Air Pollution and 300 from malaria! The 5 Star Stoves people have even worse figures - 18,000 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2011, 80,000 children suffer from paraffin poisoning every year and between 80,000 and 100.000 homes are burnt down every year in cooking accidents.
Yet health is only one of the reasons the company presents to users. For people like Molefi, the attraction is being his own businessman by supplying stoves and pellets, and the offer of franchise management is only made to people who are resident in the community in order to ensure that the benefits actually trickle-down instead of finding their way to foreign banks or remote districts.
"This project was unique and very successful because it covered many components and filled many needs in the community. Even the branding is done in such a way that it attracts people to the products," said Anna Tarvainen, with a proprietary note in her voice.
Working throough inspiration
The branding is indeed catchy. It reminded me of MTN, that most popular of South African brands that has gone continental in feel and presence. The 5 Star Stoves mascot, standing above the sign 'Mohale's Bio Fuel and 5 Star Stoves', is a friendly-looking fellow but bears a very close resemblance to the Blue Disa Project Manager, Pastor Kopano Mohapi.
As he explained the workings of the project and community, I couldn't interrupt his excitement to ask whether he had inspired the mascot, so I listened in rapt attention to his linking the agricultural waste and the stoves being used in the townships, in which he was so engrossed that he almost forgot to demonstrate how the pellets themselves are made.
"The people here grow crops and cut these weeds and grass, which they bring to us to buy and we process them through the machine to make the pellets. Those pellets are bagged and we sell them through agents to people in the townships. When they use them in their stoves they save a lot of money compared to the stoves that use only kerosene, coal or even electricity," he explained.
The process was simple enough to watch, and the explanation so simple it was fantastic. Started by Willem Malherbe, under the banner Renewable Energy Solutions, this all-round project linked together many crucial factors to provide what was, true to its name, a renewable energy solution.
The project, Malherbe explained, involved getting plantations underway belonging to the community - this one in Soweto - and improving cultivation practices so that the yield would be better for the communities, but while doing so, providing an avenue for the consumption of the numerous weeds and bio-agricultural waste that would result from the increased cultivation.
"It worked almost perfectly. As you can see all around you, this area grows weeds pretty quickly and very, very well. By positioning this plant here in this particular area people were encouraged to slash the dry grass to supply the plant - and then to grow their own crops and also bring the waste to us. Sometimes we have trucks rolling in in large numbers because they've been cleaning up the roadside in the city and have a place to dump the waste while making money!" Malherbe explained.
The project easily won funding from the Energy and Environment Partnership Programme (EEP), a joint programme which is funded by the governments of Austria, Finland and the United Kingdom, and supervised by a representative of the Southern Africa Development Cooperation (SADC) as well as country representatives where projects are based. The EEP, managed in Southern Africa by KPMG Finland, started off in Central America but has grown in scope to include Southern and East Africa over the last six years. Success is sometimes relative but the programme boasts of having run three successful calls for proposals, receiving over 1,000 concept notes from 12 countries and pre-approving 109 projects.
Total Project Expenditure: EUR 24 million, so far.
"The EEP looks out for projects that are very innovative in delivering energy efficient solutions and getting local or community participation," Tarvainen said more than once.
Back home in Uganda, only two projects have so far received EEP funding, and I am going to have a look into them to see if they are as complete as the Renewable Energy Solutions one, with its 5 Star Stoves and Blue Disa Bio Energy Farms.
At worst, I will get to drink a free coffee - because by the time I left the shebeen I was fully satisfied that this project made sense, but I didn't get to drink Molefi's coffee because the ugly head of local politics - literally and literary - reared itself in the form of an unnamed but very loud gentleman who turned up to stage a one-man protest against so many foreigners with cameras being taken round without his involvement.
As usual, I thought to myself, some idiotic politician with no clue whatsoever about what the people actually need had turned up and derailed something developmental - but, thankfully, in this case, the derailment was only temporary.