Safire: Decentralized processing model that uses waste to produce low-cost cooking fuel

Nairobi, KenyaCambridge, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

$120 billion worth of biomass (e.g. farm) waste are burned every year globally, representing 18% of global CO2 emissions. We convert this farm waste into clean-burning, high-quality cooking fuel that is 20% less expensive, less toxic and easily accessible to rural populations.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if we can distribute the value from $120 billion/year of wasted resources amongst rural farmers and low-income households?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

There are various waste in rural farms, but it often cannot be converted into a useful fuel, because it is highly expensive to transport loose or wet biomass waste to most existing energy conversion units, which are far away and highly centralized. Though energy-strapped households have tried using this waste as cooking fuel, they have not succeeded, and are mostly relying on expensive charcoal, which costs $600/ton and leads to deforestation.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We have pioneered a mobile process for low-cost densification of biomass at source, without external heat/energy. As this process improves biomass (shelf life, density, transportability), it is now more economically feasible to source/sell biomass-based commodities in a decentralized way. This opens up new rural areas with biomass that previously were deemed too remote. First, we train farmers to process their waste for delivery to us. Farmers receive royalty-free licensing right to operate our reactors. Second, we set up local production facilities to turn densified biomass into a low-cost, high-quality, and safe fuel using proprietary recipes. Third, we distribute the product 20% lower in cost to customers via existing community vendors.


Winner in the MIT Clean Energy Prize Development Track; runner-up in the Harvard President’s Challenge; winner in the MIT IDEAS/Global Challenge Competition; second prize in the Orange Africa Social Venture Competition; first prize in the Walmart Better L
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

We connect farm waste with the urban energy market. Thus we describe our impact on both farmers and urban consumers. As a farmer, Muya frequently collected and burnt tons of post-harvest waste. One day, Muya learnt from his village elder a new process that could earn him revenue from his waste. He stopped burning the waste, and instead converted and sold it to us. His income has increased by 10%. On the other hand, Mama Jane is a low-income housewife in Mathare. Her husband earns $5/day, and of that, she spends $2 on fuel alone. Last month, she heard about our product from local vendors, bought 4 bags, and saved $8. This may not seem like much, but to her, this saving made a difference between affording 2 daily meals vs 3 daily meals.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

For the past 10 months, our pilot project in Kenya has increased its fuel sales from 10 bags in January, to 450 bags in March, to 2500 bags in October. Thus far, we have helped rural farmers earn $1000 in additional income, and helped urban households save $1200 in fuel expenditures. This project has also managed 40 tons of waste, and mitigated CO2 emission by 11 tons. Moving forward, we expect that by 2018, we will have set up 10 local production facilities, and scaled to a production throughput of 4200 tons/year. This will help farmers earn $670,000/year of additional income, and urban households save $500,000 in fuel expenditures. We will also have improved local respiratory health by reducing the following air pollutants: methane by 7 tons/y, carbon monoxide by 59 tons/y, NOx by 650 kg/y, particulates by 6.8 tons/y, black carbon by 700 kg/y, and greenhouse CO2 by 9100 tons/y.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

In the immediate future, we are focused on growing our pilot production to 5 tons/day by the end of 2016 (and thus break even and prove financial sustainability). At the same time, we will be fundraising for $500,000 in capital for setting up four community-based production facilities (that we run and own) by August 2016. In the long term, to scale to other parts of Kenya and other countries, we will take a franchising model, where we recruit and set up village-based, locally run enterprises to train local farmers and process the biomass feedstock for centralized branding and distribution.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We create a new waste value chain, and the new values from this chain are distributed to the company, the farmers, and our customers. We generate a return by selling the solid fuel product at a margin above the costs of procuring/processing the feedstock. By scaling up decentralized, low-capex operations while keeping operation/transportation costs low, we project positive cash flows by the end of 2016, with a production level of 5 tons/day

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

There are other biomass densification technologies that can be made in service of our market segment: Andritz/ECN, Topell, and Dicarbon, for example. All of these are large-scale (10-200 tons/d) with initial capex of >$100,000. In order to procure sufficient biomass to operate at this scale, these companies face high long-distance transportation costs. Thus, so far we have seen very limited market penetration (<0.1%) by these competitors. The key to our technology is that its capex is 10 times lower, and thus it enables small-scale and decentralized conversion of farm waste.

Founding Story

Kevin was working in a Nairobi slum in 2011 as a global health consultant when he noticed that charcoal was being traded everywhere. He learned about the environmental and economic problems of charcoal, and found a local group that tried to produce briquettes from waste. He helped them identify and improve quality, and this led to further insights to produce higher-grade fuel. He proposed the project as his PhD thesis and fundraised $300k to support the research. Francisco, Aura, and later Zach joined to build the business model and go-to-market strategy. They worked on the financial statements, tested different operation models, and are excited to commercialize this MIT research.


Kevin Kung is an MIT PhD researcher focusing on optimizing biomass conversion and solid fuel production, within the MIT Reacting Gas Dynamics Lab and MIT-Tata Center for Technology and Design. Kevin has entrepreneurial experience in Kenya, having run a company that locally sold >1M mosquito coils. Kevin has contributed extensively to the design and development of our low-cost reactors and processes. Francisco Mejia is a Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan joint candidate. Previously, he worked as a project manager with the UN’s refugee agency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and spent time living in Kenya. Francisco is responsible for our overall operations and accounting. Aura Castillo is an MIT Sloan MBA student and Supply Chain Management alumnus. Previously, she worked with supply chain and logistics in developing and developed countries, in particular, in the chemical and agricultural sectors. Aura takes charge of our business, marketing, and product distribution strategy. Zach Cohen, an MIT Sloan MBA alumnus, is a seasoned strategy consultant with expertise in market, competitive and company analysis for global companies and nonprofits. Zach’s experience includes work in Kenya among other developing countries. Zach is responsible for our fundraising efforts. Within the next 12 months, we plan to bring onboard a full-time engineer and quality control specialist in Kenya to coordinate quality and technical issues in the different operations. For new operations, we will typically hire 4 local workers and one local supervisor per new operation. We will engage a short-term technical consultant to maintain our equipment.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

MIT Public Service Center

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:


Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

No Poverty, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

Co-founder Kevin Kung has past experience setting up and managing new ventures in Kenya. This includes EcoCoils, a for-profit that began by selling low-toxin and low-cost mosquito coils. Kevin helped implement the core technology used by EcoCoils, and helped the company secure a partnership with the largest mosquito coil company in East Africa, resulting in the sales and distribution of more than one million mosquito coils. As an MIT student, Kevin co-founded the MIT Waste Alliance, a community which aims to foster a new ecosystem to encourage conversation and innovations around waste. Over the past 12 months, this group has grown to have over 300 members not only within MIT but also in the Greater Boston area, running regular events such as lecture series, innovation exhibitions, and field trips. Additionally, Kevin has been involved with the MIT Global Startup Workshop for 3 years, first as a panel organizer, and then as a chief organization of its business plan competition.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

Safire relies on two types of operational partners: farmers and fuel retailers. Farmers own and operate our reactor, convert their own biomass waste and then sell it to Safire. Safire distributes the fuel to retailers at wholesale who then sell the fuel to end-customers for use in domestic cooking. Through work with local farming partners and farm-based community organizations, we have interacted with various farmers and validated that this activity will create valuable new revenue streams for them (up to 10% additional income). Through our work with a network of fuel retailers in Nairobi, we have also determined there are many partners inclined sell our fuel, given the substantial revenue opportunities available to them.

Our technical development comes directly out of research carried out MIT, with whom we have ongoing collaboration. In Kenya, we have a technical partnership with the University of Nairobi for technology prototyping and emissions testing. We also have a technical partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology- Bombay, with whom we have been characterizing locally available rural biomass/agricultural waste, to make our reactor design robust in diverse contexts.

In terms of financial partners, the research and development phase of our technology is heavily supported by the Tata Foundation, the Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fund (JP Morgan), and the Legatum Group. All three financial sources for the research constitute obligation-free gifts. The Tata Foundation has expressed an interest in continuing their financial support of our commercialization effort going forward.

Finally, we have met and been on friendly terms with key high-level political allies, such as Professor Judi Wakhungu (Cabinet Secretary for Environment, nominated directly by the President of Kenya), as well as other more regional officials. We put our emphasis on the fact that these allies support us because of our social and economic impact, and not because of our perceived ties with any political parties.

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Didas Mzirai's picture

You guys have a wonderful team of highly qualified and experienced experts, and the idea of turning biomass waste into energy is a great innovation. The awards you have already received are an indication of the potential that people see in yourselves and your venture. Go make it because you can. I wish you all the best!