1 August 2013

Kenya: Why Agri-Waste Is an Untapped Treasure for Kenya

Kenya, being essentially agrarian, has a countryside that produces vast amounts of farm waste every year. Most of that farm waste is considered a nuisance by too many farmers and agro-processors. Currently, only a handful of innovative initiatives have turned agricultural waste into manure and a few other profitable products.

Yet, in India, for instance, rice husks, or hulls, are raw material for partitioning boards and furnace, industrial boiler briquettes and so on. In Mwea, Kenya, rice husks are a complete nuisance. Mound upon mound of rice hull can be seensmouldering by roadsides, thick smoke billowing from these tens of mini-mountains of husk. This lack of imagination and wanton wastage of biomass is unforgiveable. The technology of generating electricity from biomass, rice husks included, has been perfected in other economies.

Therefore, Kenya does not need to reinvent the wheel insofar as redirecting the agricultural andagri-industry factory waste into a source of clean energy. ' Simple research shows that waste from husks withinMwea alone can produce power that can be sold to the National Grid or to subscribing rural households and small businesses.

And this is one basis on which a power plant has been mooted in Mwea. The Ministry of Energy has, in a revolutionary move, awarded rights to a local company, Carenger Energy Systems, to produce electricity from this waste, collectively known as biomass, to include all other agricultural waste. This is an encouraging beginning that should spur other entrepreneurs across Kenya to set up similar mini-power production systems and projects in order to cover the yawning deficiency required to power Kenya's quest for industrialisation as envisaged in Vision 2030. Of particular note is that Carenger Energy Systems intends to use a production process with a high-efficiency index.

The process, known as gasification, involves heating biomass to very high temperatures in an atmosphere of less than 1% oxygen. Biomass so heated is converted to produce gas and ash. The gas is then used to run internal combustion engines that generate electricity. That this power will be connected to the National Grid means that the output will enhance Kirinyaga County as well as the National Grid. According to one of the project's foremost proponents, Eng. Wilson Karinga, a National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) lead expert, mopping up agricultural waste that could have been burnt will help the environment because the greenhouse gases produced by open-air burning will be drastically reduced.

This is green energy, the type that the world is embracing to forestall calamitous effects, including the depletion of the Ozone Layer, and to check the growing damage caused by greenhouse gases. The new power venture, its proponent says, is a prototype that will lead to the building of mini-power units to supply electricity to far-flung villages within the giant Mwea Rice Scheme.

This model is the only one that can accelerate the supply of affordable power to Kenya's interior. Other advantages include the fact that this is waste, instead of competing with other crops as in the case of biofuels. It is superbly cost-effective, simple and easy-to-understand-and deploy technology. What's more, on top of improving public health and livelihoods it will actually raise the living standards of the poor. Rice hulls can also be used for a multiplicity of purposes, including as fertilizer and durable building materials.

Research is currently ongoing in some countries around the world into converting rice husk ash into a more compact building material than cement that actually reinforces cement. Another innovative use of rice husks is in the production of reusable chopsticks. According to the China Daily newspaper, some 45 billion disposable pairs ofchopticks are used in the People's Republic (comprising the world's biggest single national population) every year, or some 4 million trees, and promptly thrown away.

Japan uses and throws away more than 20 billion chopstick pairs a year. But an innovative firm has developed a reusable chopstick that is 90% rice husk and 10% resin and which involves no felling of trees anywhere in the world. The farmers of Mwea and their development partners could also take a piece of this vast Far East market. It is high time, therefore, that Kenyans stopped sending these versatile, multipurpose byproducts of rice production up in smoke, literally burning money and remaining poor, and in the process reduce our national carbon footprint even as we contribute to the betterment of several other key sectors. Ngari Gituku comments on social issues

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