The key to “growing your own money”

Saving people's energy, money and health locally.

There are many companies and researchers who have been working on stoves and other inventions that will allow people to have easy access to alternative cooking methods. Over half of the world still relies on open-flame cooking, which endangers people who inhale harsh smoke and are subject to fire hazards. These people include children and the elderly. However, few companies engaged in positive and lasting solutions have found success while being locally based and employing local people.

Some local companies have begun helping people lead more sustainable, healthy and economical lives as the importance of regional economic support is becoming realized. For example, Cookswell Jikos is a Kenya-based family- run business dedicated to offering nearby communities innovative products that help make cooking and heating more affordable. Cookswell was begun by Dr Maxwell Miringu Kinyanjui and is now championed by his son, Teddy Kinyanjui. Cookswell grew from modest beginnings to a sizable livelihood. It employs local artisans and professionals and has recently expanded its market into international sales.

The family realized from the beginning that a business dedicated to local sustainability was the right choice. Teddy Kinyanjui shares Cookwell’s insight with Words in the Bucket: “I think given the context of energy supply and cooking habits in the Kenyan market and our family’s long-term business goals, running a hybrid social enterprise was a logical path for a business in the biomass industry.”

“I think one of the most unique aspects of our approach to the cookstove business is not only that we are utilizing modern digital communications to increase inclusivity of all decision makers along our value chain,” Teddy explains, “we are using various digital platforms to promote the forestry component of our products thus, hopefully, ensure a future fuelwood source for our end users.”  

Open-flame cooking is also detrimental to the environment, as old growth trees are harvested in large quantities and then are burned emitting carbon dioxide. As Teddy puts it, “[T]here are few things more wasteful than burning a tree trunk that could be used as a post or provide timber”. Cookswell provides portable charcoal making kilns for purchase that remove the problem of using entire trees or burning fuels at a higher rate. Simple plant matter is instead used, such as corn cobs, twigs, leaves and coconut husks to be made into the charcoal. These smaller pieces are usually thrown away as they have few uses. Smaller plant matter is more convenient to collect and manage, therefore protecting Kenya’s forests from needless destruction.

Cooking with natural gas is common as well, and is expensive. These extra costs can become obsolete ways of living if individual households are given the ability to grow and control their own supplies. Equipping people with the tools to create their own sources of fuel allows them to save time and money while feeling independence and self-reliance. It also gives people the chance to grow a more sustainable source of fuel when possible, such as charcoal.

Cookswell refers to this as “Growing your own money”. This term was chosen to underline how much money is spent on domestic household biomass energy per family. On average, $0.50 cents per day is spent on charcoal, which over the years becomes a large chunk of savings that could be better spent. A household that can grow biomass over time through planting trees rids itself of the reliance on costly fuels by growing a continual source of income. It also provides people with the opportunity to harvest selectively, protecting old growth trees. When other options are not available, charcoal- producing equipment gives households the opportunity to choose less wasteful biomass, such as leftover plant husks and small twigs.

As the efficiency of new products increases, the pressure is raised on neighbouring businesses to follow the trend of such efficiencies, thereby influencing the local market into prolonged sustainability. The effectiveness of Jiko stove products makes them as much as 70 % more efficient, helping lower any fuel requirements. It also reduces the amount of natural gas that is being used as a heating and cooking method.

Afforestation of future old growth forests is essential, as is providing people with the ability to be resilient. A good example of a provider of such tools is Cookswell, who include a free packet of KEFRI certified acacia tree seeds with every Cookswell product purchased. It is currently recognized that there is a scarcity of accessible tree seeds, which is why now more than ever an abundance of seed resources are required. “[O]ne thing I noticed was that it was very hard for many small farmers to access small amounts of tree seeds. One can buy seeds for maize, beans, cabbages etc. almost everywhere in the country but tree seed supply is very limited.”

Teddy Kinyanjui with a cookswell Jiko in Holland

These seeds are ideal for dryland agroforestry, as beginning trees from seeds require a minimal need for watering. As the saplings grow, tree parts can then be used in the burning of stoves. Customers are encouraged to use only sticks or branches from trees, allowing them to continue growing into maturity. This method of fuel burning has been termed by Cookswell the Seed-To-Ash cycle. Teddy explains that this is “[O]ur terminology for participating in our sustainability cycle of household biomass energy – the idea is that if you start with a tree seed, you can grow your own fuel to use in one of our stoves and then even the ash is returned to your compost heap to grow more trees…”  

By using this model, Teddy tells WIB that “[S]ome of our first batches from 6 years ago are now big trees and ready to be harvested.” Cookswell continues to receive very positive feedback from its customers about the seed packets. This feedback suggests that many trees have been planted since the seed promotion began. In fact, Cookswell has given over 75 kilogrammes of mixed acacia seeds- each kilogramme consisting of about 16, 000 seeds with a germination rate of about 70 percent.

The key to strengthening communities and their environmental ties could lie in keeping sustainable companies local. When neighbours develop useful products with several positive factors, the effect is much greater than a product that must be imported from elsewhere.

Cassie Piccolo

Cassie graduated from the University of Guelph, Canada, with a degree in Biological studies and Fine Arts. She has worked with Organic Food organizations, Food Not Bombs, worked with the Sierra Club, is experienced in sustainable agriculture and landscape architecture, and most recently attended the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris. She has been a front-line activist, fighting alongside Indigenous and rural communities against fracking in Canada. In spare time she writes poetry, paints, and hangs out with her massive bear-dog.
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