Cookstoves for Freetown

Sullay and Fatmata in the open workshop at Kingtom manufacturing Charcoal Stoves 
(Photo: Binu Parthan)

Sullay Conteh is still frail from the health issues that he has had recently but plans to soon start making charcoal stoves again. He showed us the scrap metal sheet he had bought that morning for Le 50,000 (about 5 US$) which he plans to use as raw material. Few years ago, he learned to make charcoal stoves from his brother-in-law and since then has made 100s of such stoves. He does not have a workshop or covered area for making the cookstoves and does it in an open space behind the Kingtom police barracks in Freetown. Sullay also does not sell most of the stoves himself and uses shopkeepers like Fatmata sell the cookstoves to households. Rosaline gets a commission for the stoves she is able to sell. The prices for stoves vary and Fatmata is able to sell stoves for a higher price on a profit but most often the price just about covers the costs. So for Sullay and Fatmata the cookstove business is just about helping them to continue the business with limited profits as the customers they cater to are very price conscious and not aware of the importance of efficiency of stoves.

Cookstoves for sale on Old railway Line, Freetown
(Photo: Binu Parthan)

Macauley on the other hand has been in the efficient cookstove business for several years and used to manufacture stoves with his partner previously but is currently on his own. He has been to Kenya and also Ghana reviewing charcoal stove technologies in those countries. He does place and emphasis on efficiency of stoves and uses his understanding of the technology to guide his firm. His firm operates from a room in partly finished building abandoned building next to old railway line. He employs four technicians trained by himself who fabricate the efficient charcoal stoves. Since he is not too far from the road the cookstoves are stacked next to the road and on top of street-side shops for passers-by to stop and buy the stoves. The customers he finds also do not know much about differences in efficiencies of stoves but are interested in the appearance of stoves. He has been encouraging good quality finish and good exterior paint to attract customers.

Zainab and Aishatu with Hannah and Tapsir at Westwind’s manufacturing facilities at Wellington
(Photo: Binu Parthan)

Hannah Max-Maccarthy and Tapsir N’jai represent a new wave of clean energy entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone and have together run Westwind Energy for the last 7 years, since 2012. They are both returned back after being based in Europe in accounting and human resource spaces for several years and are now taking forward the stove business that Tapsir’s dad started over two decades ago. Their manufacturing facilities in Wellington Industrial Estate look very professional and workers wear uniforms and protective gear. Westwind energy makes ‘Wonder Stoves’ which have higher efficiencies that have been independently tested and verified for higher efficiency by international partnerships like GIZ Endev. WestWind also employs young mothers like Aishatu Yillah and Zainab Tourey who are among eight women being employees that fabricate efficient stoves. Both Aishatu and Zainab like their work making efficient cookstoves and were trained in-house on fabrication techniques. They also hope that the volume of work they do at the cookstove factory will increase in future. The factory supervisor also confirmed that women employees are easier to train, are more committed to work and easier to supervise! Hannah is the managing director of Westwind and has a clear vision of Westwind’s continued focus on quality and engaging more women particularly on the marketing side.

Women Employees at Work at Westwind Factory
(Photo: Binu Parthan)

Macauley, Sulley and Westwind  are among the 70 odd cookstove manufactures that make charcoal stoves in Sierra Leone. Almost 80% of these fabrication workshops are owned by individuals like Sullay and Macaulay and are  not formally organised, established and registered like WestWind. About half of these operate outdoors like Sulley or in temporary shelters and often the fabricators are trained in house and skillsets required to make efficient charcoal stoves are not always imparted. Also, only about 8% of the cookstoves sold are tested and certified like wondestoves from Westwind and rest are likely to be inefficient and result in increased charcoal use. Also, most of the workforce consists of men and Westwind’s women employees seems to be an exception

To put these enterprises in the national context, charcoal use has been increasing steadily and current trends in 2019 indicate that charcoal is fast replacing firewood as the cooking fuel and currently over 2/3rds of urban households in Sierra Leone use charcoal for cooking. This increased demand for charcoal by urban households is fuelling large scale destruction of forests in Sierra Leone for charcoal production. The twin challenge posed by increasing charcoal use and majority of the manufacturers not focussing on efficiency of stoves will need to be addressed. There is a need to provide training and capacity building of cookstove manufacturers to encourage better manufacturing practices and to manufacture  efficient charcoal stoves that can reduce charcoal consumption. There is also a need to test and certify efficient charcoal stoves and create awareness about efficiency so that consumers could distinguish efficient stoves over the inefficient ones. 

These are some of the challenges being addressed by a Global Environmental Facility (GEF) financed project –  Energy Efficient Production and Utilization of Charcoal through Innovative Technologies and Private Sector Involvement in Sierra Leone (EEPUC) supported by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by Ministry of Energy. The EEPUC project is providing training to local charcoal cookstove manufacturers on design and production of efficient stoves. The project will also be establishing a stove testing and certifying facility at Renewable Energy Centre, Government Technical Institute which will be able to test and certify locally produced efficient cookstoves. Awareness campaigns will also be carried out on the benefits of efficient charcoal stoves. It is expected that these initiatives by the EEPUC project will move the local manufacture of cookstoves to be more capable to produce efficient charcoal stoves and also encourage urban households to purchase efficient charcoal stoves, influencing the market. Such a transition to a more efficient charcoal value chain will result in climate benefits in terms of greenhouse gas mitigation and maintaining the forest cover in the country.

Indigenous Hydro Power Developers in Myanmar

The Mae Mauk waterfall micro-hydro power plant is located couple of hours drive through the Shaan highlands from Pyin Oo Lwin,  the erstwhile summer capital of British Burma. The hydro power plant and the associated electric utility are managed by Lin Yuang Chi Mini-hydro Cooperative which employs 6 people including a manager to manage the technical and business needs of the micro-hydro-electric system and the micro-utility. The cooperative was established after an initial government funded hydro power plant failed in 2012. The micro energy utility has 450 customers spread over 11 villages drawing electricity from an 80kW hydro power plant set up below the Mae Mauk waterfall. Apart from providing electricity to 250 households, the system is also providing electricity to 200 public service institutions, village level enterprises including rural industries and farms. The utility has been in operation for 7 years since 2013 and has now reached a saturation level and is currently not accepting any new customers as the additional demand cannot be met by the current micro-hydro system. 

The Mae Mauk Waterfall
(Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

We were part of a group of hydro power enthusiasts visiting the hydro power plant and the electricity cooperative as part of a Board of Advisers meeting of HPNET– the Hydro Empowerment Network, a south-south knowledge exchange platform to advance local micro-hydro practitioners who work directly with village communities. I found a number of features of this micro-hydro power and micro-utility quite interesting and feel these might be relevant to micro-hydro and decentralised energy development in Myanmar and other developing countries with energy access deficits and decentralised renewable energy potential.

Metal Fabrication Workshops and other businesses make major contribution to annual revenues
(Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

Financial feasibility and business opportunities:In the absence of government or international development assistance, the projects are selected on the basis of financial feasibility. The financial feasibility in such cases is primarily determined by the business opportunities to use the generated electricity. In the case of the Mae Mauk waterfall micro-hydro there are telecom towers, fabrication workshops, brick making, coffee, poultry, silviculture etc. which are key in making the investments financially viable. The electricity cooperative does not charge any connection fees for such business opportunities but these opportunities make a major contribution by way of tariff payments to the annual revenue of $30,000 for the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative.

Ownership and Operational model:while the legal form of the electricity utility is a co-operative, it is in effect a public-private partnership as the private sector manufacturer – Sai Htun Hla & Brothers hold 50% of shares in the cooperative with the rest held by the community and users. While the operation and maintenance of the hydro-mechanical and electro-mechanical systems, metering and tariff collection are done by the cooperative staff, Sai Htun Hla & Brothers provide the technical back-up support for repairs and replacements. This Build-Own-Operate (B-O-O) model is an important factor in the impressive operation of the micro-hydro power system and the associated utility over the last 7 years.

Regulatory Framework:in the absence of a national energy regulator or a regulatory framework for electricity and energy, the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative has established local electricity tariffs that are cost-reflective and currently generate annual revenues of $ 30,000 against the expenses of $ about $11,000. Electricity tariffs are tiered with cooperative members paying lower tariffs compared to regular consumers. The regular electricity consumers pay tariffs in the range of $ 0.18-29/kWh and temporary users pay $0.59/kWh. There is also a connection fee of $135-440 to be paid by households depending on the distance of the house from the power house. These tariffs have been accepted by the community and there are no cases of payment defaults and payments have largely been regular, with some instances of delays. It may be possible to bring tariffs down if financing through low-interest loans or investment grants were available.

Simple or Sophisticated Technology?:The technology for the hydro-mechanical and the electro-mechanical equipment is indigenous and has been developed by – Sai Htun Hla & Brothers and implemented in over a hundred such micro-hydro power plants. The system does not use an Electronic Load Control (ELC) but a generator with an Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR) allowing for reasonable frequency variations and control with manual interventions and a planned upgrade will use a flow-type load governor. The electric cooperative seems to have a strategy to keep the technology manageable and serviceable locally and to continue to provide electricity with slightly lower power quality. Several experts including my colleagues question this approach on technical grounds citing valid reasons but the customers and the electric cooperative seem satisfied with this solution. This seems to be an interesting case of locally developed and manageable technology providing reasonable energy services against the option of more sophisticated technology providing much better and safer energy services but with challenges to technical sustainability and probability of more downtime.  With my engineering background, I would have thought technical performance and safety was more important but the customers seem to be happy with the electricity service and seems to pay the tariffs regularly without fail. A case of Appropriate Technology vs Best Available Technology (BAT)?

Electricity has increased access to health services and hospital-based childbirths.
(Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

Social and Environmental Benefits:The Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative provides free electricity for all the street lights in the service area in all 11 villages, which has increased safety at night. Most households are using electric cookers which has reduced indoor air pollution particularly for women and children and has also reduced the need for firewood and reduced deforestation. Electricity offered at lower tariff bands to the health centre has resulted in increased access to health services including a marked increase in child births. Also, low-cost electricity to schools and monasteries has helped in formal and religious education of youth in the villages. Irrigation powered by electricity has increased the land area under agriculture enhancing income generation and improving food security. The decisions to offer free or low-cost electricity for public services were taken by the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative members themselves in the absence of government support or policy. Several micro-hydro based rural electrification projects provide similar benefits which are not valued and captured adequately.

Women and children benefit from reduced indoor air pollution from a switch to electric cooking.
(Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

I understand from U Sai Htun Hla, the owner of Sai Htun Hla & Brothers and U Zaw Min the owner of Kyaw Soe Win Hydropower, another major manufacturer that there are over 2000 village hydro projects powering rural population in Myanmar. These have been established over the decades when the country had limited access to international technologies or technical expertise. This situation resulted in development of such impressive numbers of village hydro projects through a community driven bottom up process supported by local micro-hydro manufacturer developers on a PPP – BOO model. I have previously not witnessed such indigenous, self-sustaining and bottom-up village electrification solutions at this scale, in countries where I have advised on development of rural electrification programmes. The existence of these successful examples at a significant scale, provides a good platform and a sound basis to develop a rural electrification programme that is sustainable in the long term.

Currently Myanmar is in the process of a large scale-electrification drive through large scale-investments in power generation capacity, electrical grid development and mini-grid based solutions through renewable energy. This is a very welcome initiative which willhelp to provide electricity access to millions who had no modern energy access previously. There is a unique opportunity in Myanmar for the large-scale electrification initiatives to collaborate and partner with the indigenous hydro power developers and communities in Myanmar to achieve village electrification solutions that are sustainable, local and with higher social and environmental benefits.

Remembering Mamunul

The man wore blue hospital cloths and appeared very weak, frail, disoriented and looked very different from the person I had known. This is the last mental image I have of Mamunul Hoque Khan who succumbed to months of struggle with Deep Vein Thrombosis last week. The image was from a Skype call we had on advancing some work I had done in Afghanistan while he was still at a hospital in Singapore. I requested Mamunul repeatedly to take care of his health during this and other Skype exchanges we had subsequently as he seemed impatient to get back to Kabul and resume work.

I first met Mamunul on a bright and sunny Kabul morning at Green Village. We immediately got into the business I was in Kabul for – to develop a rural energy project for UNDP Afghanistan. For the next 5 months we met each other almost on a daily basis as I went about the project development. He was very involved with the work, had a good advice on navigating problem issues and wanted to think big. We would have meetings late in the evenings and on holidays about the project, there will be e-mails from airports and from his home in Dhaka when he was on holidays, which made me often wonder whether he ever did anything other than work.

He was also a valued for the way he related and engaged with his colleagues. He treated them as extended family and I was often part of gatherings where people shared food and conversations in his office. He was very fond of watches and gadgets and would often encourage me to follow his example! I recall that during the periods I struggled to find decent vegetarian food at Green Village, Mamunul asked one of his friends to make Indian vegetarian food and took me over. We often had discussions about aspects other than work at Green Village or during several long trips we took to meetings in Kabul. It was clear in this conversations that he really liked the work he was doing and he had a particular liking for Afghanistan and its people.

I had been in touch with Mamunul and his colleagues regularly over the last few months to advance the implementation of the Afghanistan Sustainable Energy for Rural Development project that I had developed. We were hopeful that the implementation efforts could start this year on a much needed large scale rural energy effort in Afghanistan which would also address thermal energy needs and that Mamunul would also be back in Kabul soon. Against this background, I was shocked to hear last week that Mamunul did not win his battle with his medical condition and passed away in Dhaka. This indeed is a tragic end to someone who held a lot of promise and could have contributed immensely to environmental protection and climate change. It is indeed a major loss to his family and his employer – UNDP. His colleagues feel they have lost a family member and I have lost a good friend and a valued partner.

So rest in peace Mamunul, I hope your contributions to environmental protection and climate change in Afghanistan are not forgotten but intensified. An appropriate tribute to Mamunul would be to build on the contributions he had made to Afghanistan and to take forward the work he has initiated.

The ‘Real 5P Model’ in Cinta Mekar

I first heard about the 5P model or the Pro-Poor-Public-Private-Partnership in 2012 when I was in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa were scoping for an energy centre to be run by a cooperative as a 5P model. I found the idea of PPPs in rural energy that focused on poverty alleviation quite compelling in the context of the rural energy work I was doing at the time. This approach was reflected in the Lesotho Energy Alternatives Programme (LEAP) that I developed for UNDP and the Sustainable Thermal Energy Partnerships (STEPs) project that Xavier Lemaire of UCL Energy Institute and I developed with during 2012-2013.

Fast forward 2 years and the STEPs project is generously funded by UK Aid and on its way and while responding to the baseline study on the STEPs project, I hear from Hongpeng Liu and Deanna Morris at the Energy Division of UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (UN-ESCAP) about the original 5P model which has been working for over 10 years in Cinta Mekar, Indonesia. With kind support from Tri Mumpuni of People Centred Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA) ( who incidentally is a recipient of Magsaysay award for her work on hydro power for rural electrification), weeks later I find my way to Cinta Mekar, a relatively remote hilly village about 3 hours drive from Jakarta.

The Cooperative at Cinta Mekar – Makar Sari is headed by a diminutive Yuyun Yunegsih, a grandmother of three who has been elected few years ago by the 450 members of the. The cooperative manages the 120 kW hydro power plant which was commissioned in 2003. The investment in the hydro-mechanical and electro-mechanical equipment and the building materials were financed 50:50 by UN-ESCAP and a private company Hidropiranti. The facilitation was by IBEKA and the members of the community and cooperatives contributed labour and local materials for civil construction in a normal PPP mode.

Today after 12 years the hydro power system is still working well and generating and selling electricity to the local utility – PLN at slightly over US cents 4/kWh. 40% of the $650-$1100 monthly revenues go to Hydropiranti and 40% to Mekar Sari cooperative while 20% is set aside for maintenance, repairs and replacement. The Mekar Sari cooperative has done a number of impressive ‘pro-poor’ initiatives over the years with its share of the revenues. It has provided financial assistance to households which could not afford to obtain an electricity connection. The cooperative also provides scholarships to 360 kids from the community, provides a land fund for members who do not have land holdings, provides an allowance for women in the community to cover childbirth related expenses and also pays an allowance to older members in the community. It has plans to construct public toilets, drinking water fountains etc. all of which seems very impressive. This is an impressive ‘pro-poor’ element that I have not seen in energy projects in general. I have seen impressive pro-poor energy initiatives driven by visionary and charismatic individuals but not by organisations for such a long duration and consistent track-record.

While the social development and pro-poor schemes have been very impressive, the business side has been slightly less impressive. The cooperative has not been successful in renegotiating in higher off-take tariffs in the power purchase agreement with PLN which pays almost a three times higher tariff for similar community hydro plants. A major investment in a manufacturing facility to make gluten-free banana flour which would have employed 10 people have not been successful and lies largely unutilised as the supply chain and market prospects were not investigated properly. It’s possible that the cooperative may have benefitted from some hard-nosed business advice. However the initiative can be considered a notable success in establishing a technical and management solution at an institutional level which has worked for over 12 years and has continued to be profitable and having driven social development in the community.

It was interesting to see that almost all the electrified community was using LP Gas or gathering wood from the forests for cooking, thus affirming our view that the thermal energy aspect is often overlooked and left to individual households to solve. What was interesting was also that many households which could afford were using electric rice cookers for cooking the main staple food. A 5P model which combines private sector quality, efficiency and investments with public and community investment and participation, with community organisations managing social benefits and which combines both electricity and gas supply could indeed be a better model economically and socially. The question whether the institutionalised community leadership in Cinta Mekar can be replicated elsewhere remains.

After my visit I asked Yuyun what the cooperatives biggest challenge was and contrary to what I expected it turned out to be the efforts by the local government to take over the cooperative. So while technical, economic and social challenges can be overcome in rural energy services, political challenges often pose a greater risk to sustainability.

The Woman and Child in Bondo and Modern Thermal Energy Access

She was weak and frail, with her baby on her back and a large and unusually long log of wood on her head. You could sense that she was struggling to move under the weight of the log on her head and the baby on her back, but perhaps the promise of the large firewood and promise of less trips to gather wood egged her on. The water channel on her path was shallow but the fall was very steep, probably 40 m or more, she would have crossed the channel quite easily without the load. She jumped across, didn’t make it, slipped but fortunately held on to the brickwork and then pulled herself and her baby out and moved on. I had my heart in my mouth for a few seconds and was greatly relieved that she and her baby was safe. The women with her baby (see picture) could have easily slipped and dropped 40 m down with grave consequences.

This is a scene I witnessed two weeks ago at Bondo in Southern Malawi –one of African countries where over 90% of the population lack energy access. Several millions of women in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia make such risky trips every day to gather firewood, twigs and shrubs for household thermal energy use, often putting themselves at physical risk. Such trips often expose these women to rough terrain, natural elements and attacks from animals and sometimes fellow humans.  Most of these women then cook food or boil water using inefficient traditional stoves or keep the fire burning through the night to keep themselves warm or keep wild animals away. These traditional thermal energy use results in major indoor air pollution which slowly kills them and their children through lower respiratory diseases. So women are exposed to health risks during the collection and use of traditional biomass for thermal energy.

Against this backdrop, last week, I was pleased to learn from the launch of the decade of SE4All from New York that the first two years of the decade will be dedicated to ‘Energy-Women-Children-Health’ nexus. This is a very welcome development and I applaud the SE4All leadership and partners for the attention to this space. However to be able to effectively address health related challenges of women and children in areas without energy access, electrification alone is not sufficient and providing modern and thermal energy to rural women is central to this issue. Providing modern thermal energy needs to go beyond a product delivery approach which often focuses only on efficient cook-stoves. While energy for cooking is important, hot water for sanitation and space heating are also quite important. While biomass – solid and liquid fuels, electricity and solar thermal could all play a role, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) can also play a supplementary role. The business of providing thermal energy as a service is likely to a low-return, long-term business and may need to be combined with electricity or agro businesses to increase viability. There are also important roles that public sector, private sector, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the international community should play. Solutions will need to go beyond technology to address, financing, supply chain, institutional arrangements as well as policy and regulations. So all of us need to chip at this problem from all possible angles and the attention and support in this space in the next two years due to SE4All is very welcome.

As for the anonymous woman and her child, Peter Killick of Mulanje Energy Generation Agency, the micro-grid electricity service provider for Bondo who witnessed the scene with me, kindly offered to put a footbridge across the channel. While I am relieved that her future journeys to gather fuel will be safer, I hope to be back in Bondo in the future to see that she has access to cleaner energy technologies and fuel supply at her doorstep.