Rhoda Nassanga: I want schools to replace firewood with briquettes

Nassanga in a workshop. She produces briquettes for schools. PHOTO/ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • Rhoda Nassanga is passionate about renewable energy.
  • Together with her brothers, they produce tonnes of briquettes, which they supply to schools. In the spirit of environmental conservation, she wants all schools to use briquettes, not firewood.

Growing up, Rhodah Nakate Nassanga, a civil engineer, observed her parents order large amounts of firewood to prepare school meals, every month of the academic term.

She says this meant more trees were being cut everyday to supply the markets in schools across the country. But it was a huge cost that schools incurred. Together with her three young brothers, Nassanga devised means of finding alternative ways of cooking without using firewood.

“My brother, Brian Kakembo, is into renewable energy. My passion is in environmental engineering. So we started experimenting different ideas that would replace the large volumes of firewood that schools use to prepare meals for children,” she recalls.

Firewood and charcoal produce heat for cooking. But this curious team also discovered that it was possible to generate the same heat through other means. 

“Even the waste from agricultural practices, if carbonised, can produce heat,” Nassanga explains.
In 2015, the quadruple embarked on corbonising waste, but it did not work. Several trials too were unsuccessful, until 2017, when they had a viable product to pilot. 

“Our parents (proprietors of two schools) gave us a chance to experiment what we had developed in their schools. We used briquettes, which we made from carbonised organic waste and they worked efficiently,” Nassanga explains, adding that every day, they thought of ways of making the innovation more reliable. 

Starting an energy company
Their driving force was the need to conserve the environment by reducing deforestation and creating jobs for the unemployed youth.

It is this inspiration that birthed Weye Clean Energy Company in 2015. Weye stands for waste to energy youth enterprise. It is located in St Kizito High School,  Namugongo in Kiira, Wakiso District. 

What it takes to make briquettes
They buy organic waste from farmers who have vast land in Luweero, Ssemuto, Nakaseke and Kalangala districts. This includes cassava and maize cobs. 

They also generate additional waste from food leftovers from schools and other wastes.
“‘We turn organic waste into carbon, just like the way firewood is turned into charcoal. We then burn the organic waste in the absence of oxygen,’’ she says. 

 “If you carbonise a maize cob, it remains in its shape, but turns black just like charcoal. Using a crusher from the production unit, we turn it into fine powder. We then mix the powder with a binder- cassava flour,” Nassanga adds.

She says farmers in Semuto, Nakaseke grow the bitter cassava on a large-scale and collect waste from neighbours and small-scale farmers.

She says initially they used molasses as a binder in the process of making briquettes, but it was expensive. They decided to use cassava flour. Maize cobs and other organic waste served as raw materials to make the briquettes. 

“We prepare cassava flour in form of porridge, mix it with biochar and the mixture is put in a machine known as extruder, which makes the shape of the briquette,” she says. 

Rhoda Nassanga in a workshop, where briquettes are produced. PHOTO/ISAAC KASAMANI

From the extruder, briquettes come out wet and they are taken to a solar dryer. The production unit accommodates four tonnes of briquettes at a time. During dry seasons, four tonnes dry in two days and in wet seasons, it takes a week or two.

After drying, briquettes are taken to the market for sale. A kilogramme of briquettes costs Shs1,000. For bigger institutions such as schools, a kilogramme goes for Shs800.

Students from humble backgrounds, can work with the company in exchange for school fees.
“Some work for a short time and leave, and become ambassadors by making briquettes. They easily teach other people the same skill,” says Nassanga

Those who hone the skill and have the desire to start their own companies are supported by Weye Clean Energy Company. When they get many clients and they cannot meet the orders, they are linked to markets.

Then came the breakthrough
 “My brother carried out several fundraising activities. He also travelled to present this concept, which won him a grant of about Shs18.5m ($5,000) in 2016,” she adds. They used the money to build a solar dryer. 

In 2019, they secured more funding from Greenpreneurs’ competition, where they won Shs37.5m ($10,000).  This helped them to set up a bigger production unit in Mukono District.

“We currently supply briquettes to six schools, which have a minimum of 700 students. We also partner with other people to secure market for our brickets,” she adds.

Impact on communities
Nassanga explains that more women are benefitting from this project because they engage in cultivation and supply of raw materials. Women are also learning how to keep organic waste and carbonise it using rudimentary methods.

“They do not cut down trees anymore because we they now make briquettes,” Nassanga says. The project has also significantly reduced conflicts among families, which was initially caused by lack of access to basic needs. 

“They have lifted some responsibilities off their husbands’ shoulders such as buying charcoal, since they know how to make briquettes. At a community level, people no longer encroach on each other’s land in search firewood,” Nassanga explains. 

WEYE Clean Energy Company has positively transformed the lives of about 1,000 women and youth in the areas of Kitosi, Entebbe, Mukono, Namugongo and Namuwongo.

Early challenges 
Nassanga says accessing raw materials was a nightmare at the start. They also had insufficient funds to pay suppliers. She says making briquettes is a ‘‘dirty’’ job and many youth, especially girls shun it. 

“The cost of electricity was too high because we use machines to produce brickets. But in 2020, we liaised with Umeme to subsidise our rates through National Environmental Management Authority (Nema). And this was a huge relief,” she says.

They also struggled to win the trust of customers because they were introducing a new concept. Dr Fredrick Kakembo (Nassanga’s father) organised The Green Festival in 2018, where headteachers, teachers and students from various schools were oriented on how briquettes work.

Any successes registered? 
Weye Clean Energy Company collaborates with the entrepreneurial groups at Makerere University Business School (MUBS), through a forum for young entrepreneurs. 

All the youth who work with the company go through the forum. The forum has different avenues for different businesses such as banking to help entreprenuers access to loans.

In Namuwongo, Kampala, Weye Clean Energy Company trained 250 women and youth in 2022, and built for them a production unit in a partnership with the Rotary Club of Kisubi.

Currently, 50 women are learning how to make briquettes, which has kept them busy and improved their livelihoods.

Rising Woman experience
Nassanga says the Rising Woman programme transformed her business in areas of governance, managing a family business, setting up standards of operation and clear boundaries within a company.

“When I am not in office, tasks should get done. I learnt this from one of the entrepreneurs during a business trip in Nairobi, Kenya and we are implementing it,” she says.

Nassanga encourages budding entrepreneurs to consult and be vocal about environmental conservation issues. She plans to transition to solar power, expand her company’s reach to more schools and establish subsidiary units run by the youth.