Vuma Biofuels produces clean biomass energy from sugarcane waste. The company’s mission is to replace firewood-as-fuel for Kenya’s industrial sector and will soon begin supplying its product to tea factories.
About three years ago, Chairman Aaron Pattillo and CEO Ian Otula co-founded the company, which takes sugar cane waste and processes it into briquettes, which are used as a tea factory fuel alternative to firewood. In September 2019 they opened Vuma Biofuels’ production facility and headquarters in rural western Kenya’s Migori County where Otula runs its daily operations overseeing 94 employees.
Pattillo and Otula met in Boulder, Colorado while Otula was studying at the Watson Institute, a “training ground for next generation social innovators.” The institute helps nurture ideas for for-profit businesses that have inherent social or environmental value. Pattillo mentored Otula and both decided to collaborate to help Otula’s home country of Kenya. The idea of converting agricultural waste into biomass energy was originally born out of a science project Otula created while in high school.
“Ian and I immediately hit it off. He’s got the magic combination of intelligence, heart, and hustle,” said Pattillo.
He and Otula noticed that in Kenya, tea factories are at the top of the list of industrial consumers of firewood. “They use tremendous quantities of woodfuel in these biomass boilers to generate steam for the withering of the tea leaves,” Pattillo said.
“We realized there is a real opportunity here and that the path forward would be to be to build our own production facility,” Pattillo said. “We’re taking a waste product that is generated by the sugar processing industry and turning it into a much higher value energy product that can directly replace burning traditional timber wood fuel.” They want to alleviate the pressure to use trees as an energy source, thus curbing deforestation. Kenya has lost more than 50% of its forest coverage in recent decades, said Pattillo.
They intentionally built their facility near Sony Sugar Company, the third largest sugar miller in Kenya. Sugar waste had been piling up outside of Sony’s factory for decades, “So they’re quite pleased about our taking it off of their hands and do something useful and productive with it,” said Pattillo.
The sugar cane waste is collected, dried, milled and put through high pressure compaction processes to form “VumaBriqs”—the company’s brand name for its sugar cane waste briquettes.
VumaBriqs produce a total heat content that is nearly 50% greater than firewood, they are also more dense and burn longer, said Pattillo. In addition, they are nearly smokeless when they burn, due to their low moisture content.
Traditionally, tea factories in Kenya have used wood for fuel, but the Rainforest Alliance has recently pushed for alternative fuel sources. The Rainforest Alliance initiative, with support from the IKEA Foundation, will help tea farmers save money while saving forests and reducing carbon emissions. “In partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, we are going to be supplying tea factories with our products,” said Pattillo. This entails working with the Kenya Tea Development Agency, under which there are currently 69 tea factories based throughout Kenya. This initiative is starting with 18 of the factories that have expressed an interest in exploring non-wood fuel sources. Beginning in March, Vuma Biofuels will supply their product to 3 – 4 of these factories, Eberege Tea Factory in Kisii being one of them. The initiative aims for the 18 factories to reach a 30% usage of non-wood fuel over a two-year period. Then, the goal is to reach all 69 tea factories in Kenya and increase the alternative fuel threshold above 30%.
Vuma Biofuels plans to expand geographically, and eventually into the household sector. “Our main strategy is initially to focus on these large business industrial users of firewood and be able to offer them alternatives,” said Pattillo. “We then want to expand this. We can also make small pellets out of the same material that can be used at the household level with cooking stoves, so there’s potential to expand to the household consumer market as well.” They also want to open additional production facilities in Kenya and across east Africa.
Every ton of VumaBriqs that are produced equate to the equivalent of 25 trees worth of firewood that is being saved or displaced. Pattillo estimates Vuma Biofuels will save about 2 million trees within the next three years.