Inyenyeri shop in Kigeme (c) Inyenyeri Suzanna Huber 2016
© Inyenyeri Suzanna Huber 2016

The Greener Fuel: Giving Refugees A Choice in Rwanda

February 16, 2017

This article has been reposted from UNHCR Innovation. The original article is available here

In September 2016, a Rwandan social benefit company called Inyenyeri did something no private sector business had ever done before in the country. It opened shop inside a refugee camp. Its partnership with UNHCR and the clean cooking fuel option it offers refugees may be the answer to the interconnected energy, environment and protection issues people have faced here for decades.

Inyenyeri leases one of the world’s cleanest cooking stoves to refugees and sells them biomass pellets to burn in it. “It’s such a beautiful project because it’s not really a project, it’s a business model,” says Rwanda-based Livelihoods Officer Jakob Oster. “It’s going to address a lot of issues at the same time. Not just protection, not just energy, not just livelihoods, not just the environment, it’s all those things combined. That’s what makes this quite unique.”

The dirty downsides of traditional cooking

In Rwanda, virtually all of the 150,000 refugees depend on firewood and charcoal for cooking. The problems inherent in this longstanding way of life are manifold; women and their young children spend hours by smoky fires, inhaling toxic fumes that cause disease and death. An estimated 225 refugees in Rwanda die every year from causes related to the indoor air pollution.

As forests are depleted, refugees and members of the host community alike must travel increasingly farther to collect enough for their families—a task that typically falls to women. Women in Rwandan camps have reported being attacked and sexually assaulted while foraging for wood in nearby forests or fields. The chore of collecting firewood also eats up time they could spend on livelihoods activities or training.

Children’s time is wasted, too: With dirty charcoal stoves, children often spend hours getting water and scrubbing pots instead of going to school, studying or playing. Depleted forests caused more than 29 percent of refugees in Rwanda to come into conflict with members of the host community, who suffer just as acutely when the forests are cut down for kilometers surrounding the camp.

The environmental impact of this reliance on traditional cooking methods is also devastating. Degrading forests releases carbon dioxide into the air, leaves the soil prone to erosion and, in Rwanda’s hilly terrain, can lead to floods and mudslides. At least 60 people died in 2016 from deadly mudslides caused by heavy rains. Most of them were children. The problem is not limited to Rwanda. Globally, 80 percent of refugees depend on traditional biomass for cooking, leading to the burning of 64,700 acres of forest every year.

A greener kind of fuel

Inyenyeri provides another option. It leases clean-burning Mini Moto gasification stoves to clients for free and provides any needed support, maintenance or repairs. The stoves burn densified wood pellets that patrons purchase from Inyenyeri monthly, or whenever they need more. The stoves and pellets, mostly composed of eucalyptus branches that are dried, chipped, and compressed into pellets, use up to 95 percent less wood than traditional three rock fires or charcoal stoves. They also burn about 99 percent cleaner— about on par with natural gas, which is cost prohibitive for most in Rwanda.

“It’s going to address a lot of issues at the same time. Not just protection, not just energy, not just livelihoods, not just the environment, it’s all those things combined. That’s what makes this quite unique.”

The dense fuel source also burns much more consistently than charcoal—a nice perk for refugees whose traditional dishes often simmer for hours. Inyenyeri’s first repeat customer from within Kigeme refugee camp was a woman who ran her own small dairy business. “She came in to buy more pellets saying she was so happy with the stove because it cooked her milk perfectly,” says Suzanna Huber, Inyenyeri’s Legal and Policy Advisor. “Refugees are not just using it for their families but also to make money. That’s exactly what we want.”

When refugees become customers

UNHCR-Rwanda is undergoing a paradigm shift— one where refugees are empowered to make decisions as consumers. By 2015, refugees in three of Rwanda’s six camps were receiving direct cash transfers from the World Food Program instead of food rations. The remaining three are expected to make the shift in 2017.

Inyenyeri is the first private sector partner to sell directly inside Kigeme refugee camp, but Oster expects others to join it soon. The country operation is already working with a soap company and sanitary pad business that sell their products in the camps through refugee sales agents and plan to set up production in the camps. “This is a brand new type of partner for UNHCR,” Oster says. “A social enterprise has the potential of becoming inherently self-sustaining.”

As UNHCR turns to innovative partnerships to address energy and environmental concerns, enterprises like Inyenyeri present an opportunity to take a novel approach. Energy and environment initiatives have typically suffered from a shortage of voluntary funding. But when refugees become consumers of more energy-efficient technologies, they can exercise choices that benefit both their resources and the environment’s.

With new purchasing power, refugees are making the decision to become Inyenyeri customers. The company launched a pilot in Kigeme refugee camp at the start of October 2016 and had 100 families immediately sign up and complete their first payment. “The demand is there: everyone knows charcoal and firewood are dirty fuels,” says Huber. “If they had a choice they wouldn’t be doing it.”

Initial feedback is roundly positive from refugees using their new stoves and pellets. A young couple Oster visited with in November, for instance, told him how their baby used to suffer from the smoke when they cooked indoors with wood. Now, they can cook, keep the baby warm and heat water for his baths while keeping him healthy. The mother, who used to get in “trouble” collecting firewood, now sells the family’s firewood rations to buy Inyenyeri pellets.

Giving refugees a choice

An average refugee household of five that signs up with Inyenyeri can expect to spend a bit less than $6.70 on 30 kilos of pellets each month. That’s 17 percent of their World Food Program cash allowance—a typical percentage for sub-Saharan African energy consumers and less than they would otherwise spend on charcoal.

Inyenyeri’s business model is succeeding outside refugee camps, where it operates a for-profit business in the city of Gisenyi and surrounding rural areas. It serves 1,300 customers with an 80 percent customer retention rate after two years and routinely turns interested clients away because it does not have enough stoves.

The company is looking for funding that will allow it to expand and produce more pellets. “There’s so much demand but the model is capital intensive, as we need to build the infrastructure to produce pellets and buy stoves in order to create revenue,” says Huber.

If Inyenyeri does get the investment it needs to scale, refugees stand to benefit even more: Inyenyeri is considering building a pelletizing factory just outside Kigeme camp, an initiative that could employ an additional 15 refugees. If all households in the camp became customers it could hire another 20 retail associates on top of that to help run the shop and train new customers on using the stove and pellets. The company requires at least $500,000 in order to build the factory.

In the meantime, Inyenyeri and UNHCR are taking note of refugee interest even before firewood has been monetized—a step that Oster says is right around the corner for Inyenyeri refugee-customers, who will have the choice of whether or not to switch to cash transfers instead of firewood. More than 500 refugees are currently signed up on Inyenyeri’s waiting list. “Households, on their own initiative, with their own money…have chosen to sign up and pay for Inyenyeri’s solution,” Oster says. “It’s really simple. I think that’s the beauty of it. The complexity is the scaling up of it and securing enough investment.”