Blog, News & Events

Never Stop Learning: Lessons from a Knowledge Sharing Trip on Charcoal Production from Zambia to Uganda

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Yvonne Mtumbi

This July, I was honored to lead a delegation of enthusiastic Zambians to Uganda for knowledge sharing. We arrived in Kampala, Uganda expecting to see and learn more about the active sector of briquetting and cook stove production. I considered it a privilege to be part of a team of three Zambian knowledge scouts who included the briquetting project promoter, Laban Nshimbi and Stephen Mvula—both IDIN Network members—who had an eye for the right technology to be used.

Our objective for the visit was to understand what the briquetting landscape in Uganda looked like, what was driving it, and how it was structured. This was with the view to replicate the model in Zambia using Mr. Nshimbi’s project as a pilot. Mr. Nshimbi was producing briquettes, but at what he jokingly says is “zero scale” after what he saw in Uganda. My mind was open to learn everything there was to learn in Uganda and not just about briquetting and cook stove production. I was particularly interested to know the business model being used by the briquette producers especially that from my little research, a number of producers of briquettes at a community level are social enterprises. I was hoping to know how they are modeled to run sustainably.

Our host was IDIN Network member Betty Ikalany of Teso Women Development Initiatives (TEWDI/AEST) based in Soroti Uganda, together with Dennis Weboya and Helen Acuku who helped us through the various places we needed to visit. Betty recently received a D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship to scale her charcoal production operations. I had heard about Betty, whom I now love to think of as the “African Iron Lady.” I was so anxious to meet her and get to know everything she was doing in Uganda. I remember that Betty and her team was recommended by Jona Repishti, the IDIN Network Coordinator and it’s only when I got back that I realized why the recommendation.

They knew their way around most places and seemed to know whom to see for exactly what. It was apparent that they were also using the facilitation of our learning experience to gain more knowledge for their business as well which was really awesome because they were highly engaged in all discussions and it was also as though they were rekindling their passion for what they do. While Dennis was mainly there to document things, he helped us learn a lot more because he kept asking all the relevant questions.

The total number of people on the team was six, actually seven with Emmanuel our amazing pilot, as was always introduced by Betty. The seven of us were together for a total of six days filled with a lot of learning about not only briquettes, but also Uganda culture. I always looked forward to meals so I could have a portion of Matoke (Mashed Plantain), but rarely Posho (Pulp from Corn). I particularly enjoyed the fish! 

A Tour of Charcoal Production in Uganda

We spent the six days visiting four briquetting businesses: Green Heat, Masupa, Kingfire, and Betty’s Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST). All except AEST were located in Kampala. I found it interesting that three out of the four enterprises visited were run by women. These women had the similar attributes: they were go-getters and this passion was really rubbing hard on me. In addition to the briquetting enterprises, we also visited a cook stove production enterprise.

All these enterprises were small to medium-sized. They used different kinds of technology and equipment in their processing and each was also very proud to share with us where they started from to make it clear that growth is a process. It was also quite evident that each used different feedstock and this also defined the business model they had embraced. I noted that the major challenge they had was space of production. This limited their production capacity even when there was demand for their products. 

Throughout the visits, the key learning points for me was that it all starts with a passion either to save energy, conserve the environment, empower women or other causes. It was evident that for most the businesses visited, they did not start as big and had a humble beginning but because of the passion that the promoters had in what they were doing, it was apparent that the businesses were seeing the light of day.

Never Stop Learning

I also learnt that in business you never should stop learning. Ironic, right? Well, our host Betty was running what I think is a successful enterprise in briquetting however, as we visited the other enterprises also in briquetting, I saw her eager to also learn on the different approaches to make her business grow. For instance, Betty was using cassava as a binder however, in all the places we visited, the enterprises were using molasses. As a result, Betty actually bought a container of molasses to try out the molasses as an alternative binder. I am actually waiting to hear how her experiment went with the molasses. So, in all this I learned that in whatever business or project you are involved in, you have to be open to learning.

My “wow” moment was when Betty and I had our girl talk. We didn’t plan it, but she was able to share with me her life experience leading to her setting up TEWDI/ AEST and I was so captivated and inspired. What inspired me most was how Betty’s life and mine seemed similar with the major difference being that she ran with her vision while I for years have been planning and unplanning and replanning. Betty made me see that if you have to do something… DO IT! Procrastination has been my greatest witness and I think this trip to Uganda just got me delivered!

Taking Lessons Learned Back to Zambia

My visit to Uganda, which was about me being the Technology Marketing Specialist for the National Technology Business Center leading a group of IDIN Network members to a knowledge exchange visit, turned out to be about me as an IDIN affiliate being more responsive to the learning outcomes of the visit. So much that when I was helping Laban to structure his enterprise for briquetting, I realized I too can do it for the women in my home village where they grow a lot of groundnuts and the shells go to waste. With this, as soon as I got back from the visit, I found myself in my home village in Sinda, Eastern Province to consider the prospects of setting up a plant.

During the visit in Uganda I also met a colleague, Charles Taremwa, who is an expert with rural enterprise development project management and I was so excited that he is willing to volunteer for a couple of months to help me set up the project. Interesting enough, I was able to link him to my newfound colleague Catherine from Kingfire, one of the enterprises we visited, for a brief attachment to get clarity on some of the technical things we need. 

So thanks to Betty and the three women’s enthusiasm, and great energy from Gabriel from Greenheat, I feel they managed to get me off the ground from just planning to actually doing this! Of course I am going to help Laban with his project, but I think we will be more of help to each other now because I am hoping through both our initiatives we can venture into community trainings on how to produce briquettes. I also think that our efforts here in Zambia driving the cause for clean energy through the promotion of briquettes will also drive the need for us to work even more closely with our new family in Uganda. I see us perhaps hosting briquette workshops and having the Uganda team as our key resource. Zambia needs to catch up in this sector and I think Laban and I can make some difference.

Yvonne Mtumbi is a Technology Marketing Specialist at the National Technology Business Center in Zambia, where she actively supports IDIN Network members and innovators in their technology design and development endeavors.