To salvage its depleted forests and address the water crisis, Kenya needs to increase the use of alternatives to charcoal and firewood.
But as the national and county governments step up efforts to protect forests, charcoal and firewood are becoming more expensive and harder to find.
Calls to plant more trees are great but the newly planted ones will take several years to mature.
So, what cooking fuel should low-income earners, budget-constrained schools and small-scale businesses turn to?
One option is gas. However, it is expensive and requires costly equipment and infrastructural investments.
Furthermore, many households, schools and restaurants have recently invested in energy-saving jikos, making it hard to abandon them for an expensive cooker.
Gas is unlikely to fully replace charcoal and firewood. Even well-off schools and households that can afford gas usually do not use it for traditional meals such as githeri, which can take up to four hours to cook.
However, briquettes could save Kenyans money without big upfront investments.
The term “briquettes” refers to agricultural or forestry waste compacted into a log or charcoal shape.
In Kenya, briquettes are made from a variety of sources: Tea, coconut and sugarcane waste (bagasse), rice and coffee husks, and sawdust and charcoal dust.
More than 1,000 tonnes of it could be produced daily from the sugar factories alone.
Most briquettes are nearly smokeless since the agricultural waste is dried before being compressed.
This means cooks no longer suffer from coughs, watery eyes and lung pain and are not at risk of long-term health complications caused by inhalation of toxic smoke.
Notably, indoor air pollution from cooking with charcoal and firewood is one of the biggest causes of premature deaths in Kenya: It kills about 14,300 people every year.
Briquettes are also relatively economical. Those made from sugarcane waste, coffee husks or sawdust have more heat than charcoal or firewood.
They are also very dense, so they can burn for up to four hours. One only needs to use a third to half as ordinary wood.
Schools that have switched from firewood to sugarcane waste briquettes save 35 per cent on their cooking fuel budget, on average.
Like wood, briquettes can be carbonised (charred in a low-oxygen kiln), which means they burn like charcoal and can be used in ordinary charcoal jikos.
Or they can burn like firewood with a big flame and, hence, can be used in institutional energy-saving jikos (boilers) at schools and restaurants, hot water heaters in hotels and industrial boilers in factories.
Adopting briquettes does not require any infrastructure cost for most consumers.
The government should buttress tree planting and forest management initiatives with policies for briquettes and other clean cooking fuels.
Briquettes are charged value added tax as a manufactured product while charcoal and firewood are not.
The VAT increases the price of briquettes by 16 per cent, hampering the efforts to popularise them.
The government should zero-rate VAT on briquettes and other clean cooking fuels such as ethanol and biogas to give them a level playing ground with charcoal and firewood.
It could also give incentives, or a directive so that public institutions stop using firewood.
Part of the allocations to public schools, hospitals and factories is used to purchase firewood.
It is ironical that the government is encouraging tree planting but also procuring firewood.
In addition to the ongoing tree planting drive and other conservation efforts, Kenyans ought to switch to the eco-friendly briquettes and start saving trees today.
Ms Laichena is founder and chief executive officer at Acacia Innovations; [email protected]