Engineer without Borders: one graduate's journey into Africa

As she settles in to Nairobi life, engineer Laura Clough reports from Kenya, talking about how the local people are embracing renewable and sustainable technologies and describing her experience visiting biogas plants, such as the one at Embu Prison.

My first month out here in Kenya has flown by and been full of introductions, information overloads, safaris and figuring out matatu ‘routes’ (Kenyan public transport): all plenty of fun.

Life has quickly got busy and I have settled into the routine of Nairobi life. This first month working with GVEP-International has really allowed me to get an insight into the work being done by the Developing Energy Enterprise Programme (DEEP) that I am supporting. I’ve also seen close up the challenges and opportunities that small scale energy businesses face in this region.

I have been writing a technical factsheet on biogas to provide information to entrepreneurs interested in this technology and have visited several biogas plants. One such visit was to Embu Prison where the biogas plant is run off the human excrement from the 600 prisoners there. The excrement is broken down by bacteria in the biogas chamber and combustible gas is released and piped to the kitchens and used as fuel for cooking.

Not only is the system improving on waste management and providing a source of renewable cooking fuel, the gas can also be used to run a small generator to provide electricity for lighting in the prison. On our visit we installed such a generator to demonstrate this concept.

What has really struck me during these visits is the way people in Kenya are embracing renewable and sustainable technologies with great interest and enthusiasm.

Living in the UK and even here in Nairobi, we take for granted that we can come home from work and put on the lights, boil the kettle and watch the TV with the flick of a few switches. But for most of the population of Kenya, this is not possible. In such circumstances people must look for alternative sources to cook their food and provide heating and lighting for themselves and their families.

Biomass accounts for 68 per cent of the primary energy supply in the country, making it the biggest of the three main sources of energy; biomass (68 per cent), petroleum (22 per cent) and electricity (nine per cent). The two main categories of biomass used are charcoal and firewood and of the 34.3 million tonnes of biomass consumed by Kenya in 2000 only 43.7 per cent was from sustainable sources contributing significantly to deforestation in the country.

In light of these statistics no wonder people are keen to embrace more renewable and clean forms of technology. Through technology and business training as well as market linkage and encouraging access to finance, DEEP is trying to stimulate growth in the SME energy sector, supporting mainly solar, briquette and improved cook stove technologies.

An on-going task during my time in Kenya will be to help communicate the work that GVEP is doing through a series of case studies and articles. This month I have been reviewing the existing case studies of entrepreneurs that have been supported under DEEP. I have written an article for the website about the recent series of training workshops done by GVEP-I on energy business financing. These aimed to educate people on the opportunities available in the energy sector and encourage financing for energy businesses.

Another project undertaken this month has been to produce a video about my placement for the Engineers without Borders (EWB-UK) National Conference. The video detailing some of my Kenyan experiences so far also included feedback from GVEP on the benefits of the collaboration they have with EWB.

This first month has been a great start to my placement and introduced me to the work that GVEP is doing. I am looking forward to getting more involved with the work over the next few months as my knowledge and experience here continues to develop.

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