A simple credit scheme earned Toyola Energy one of this year’s Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. Juliet Heller profiles the winning solutions, from Ghana to Gujarat to Gloucestershire.
Four years ago, Gina Garbon was one of the first people to buy a clean stove from Toyola Energy in her neighbourhood in Accra. She was so happy with it that she borrowed money to buy more stoves to sell at her market stall. Now she’s sold no fewer than 6,000, and with the profits has bought land to build a new house. “Selling stoves has changed my life”, she says.
She’s not the only one who is pleased. “My customers are happy because they spend much less on charcoal, the stoves burn cleanly, and cook quickly too.” Toyola Energy, this year’s Ashden Awards International Gold Award winner, was set up by Ghanaian entrepreneur Suraj Wahab to offer an affordable alternative to the widely used traditional stoves, which consume a lot of fuel and make the home smoky. Carbon finance enables the stoves to be sold for as little as US$7. That’s a hefty sum for many Ghanaian households, so Suraj came up with a simple ‘money box’ credit scheme: literally, a tin with a slot. He gives his customers the stoves on credit, and they pay him out of the savings they make from reduced charcoal consumption. It’s ludicrously simple, but highly effective. Three out of every four Toyola customers use the scheme, and it’s helped the company sell over 154,000 stoves in total – cooking meals for nearly one million people in Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso.
Another clever solution to pollution is found in Bihar, India’s poorest state, where the electricity grid only meets around 10% of demand. Even where there is power, it’s sporadic and unreliable. A group of Bihari friends working in the US decided to return home and address this problem. Discovering that rice husks could be gasified to produce electricity, they set up a business called Husk Power Systems that now has 65 plants across the region, providing reliable and cheap mains connections, with enough ‘juice’ to power machine tools. Around 180,000 people have a good supply of electricity for the first time, and feel they have finally entered the 21st century. “Now I have an elated feeling when I see my kids studying at night”, said one. Understandably, many more villages are clamouring for a connection and the business is expanding to try to meet the demand.
The northwestern Indian state of Gujarat is home to an enterprise that is also harnessing waste for clean energy. Abellon Clean Energy is making biomass pellets from sawdust and crop residues like cotton and mustard seeds to replace the highly polluting lignite (or ‘brown coal’) used by local industries. With 65,000 tonnes of pellets produced a year, saving around 110,000 tonnes a year of CO2, the impact of the business is significant. Abellon has set up a not-for-profit, Poornakumba, which works with 8,500 farmers who supply the waste, training them in sustainable farming techniques and helping them adjust to climate change. Such advice is much appreciated in these times of rapid climate shifts. As one farmer commented: “We need someone to tell us what to plant and when; the weather doesn’t tell us anymore.”
Business, too, is at the heart of an ambitious scheme which is powering up remote communities with a range of low-cost solar energy products. ToughStuff International, a social enterprise operating mainly in Kenya and Madagascar, sells kits costing less than $30 which include a mini PV panel and robust LED lamp. The panel can also charge a mobile phone and a radio. Over 140,000 of these have been sold, bringing power to 740,000 people. Village entrepreneurs like Mary Kaindi, are excited by the opportunities ToughStuff is bringing. “I’ll educate my children; I’ll buy food and clothing for them. I’ll make money from this product and my life will change.”
Sustainable energy isn’t just about generating power: it’s about home comforts, too – a fact much appreciated by Bibi Safina and family. They live in a village nesting in the Hindu Kush mountains of northern Pakistan. In the harsh winters her house was cold and draughty, and she spent hours collecting wood to keep the house warm. Now she’s one of 100 local people working with an initiative set up by the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services (AKPBS), which promotes simple energy efficient products like floor insulation, a clean burning cookstove with water heater, and a roof hatch window that cuts out draughts. Bibi both helps promote the products, and benefits from them herself. “For a working woman like me, it’s great. I can go out in the morning and there’s hot water when I get back.” AKPBS has sold over 50,000 such products in the last 14 years, and they’re also helping take pressure off the region’s dwindling forests by saving 100,000 tonnes of wood a year.
A problem shared...
Thousands of miles away in the UK is a scheme that also retrofits homes to make them energy efficient and comfortable, and was proud recipient of this year’s overall UK Gold Award. Housing association Radian in Hampshire has reduced CO2 emissions across its social housing stock in south east England by 34%. As part of ongoing maintenance work, it installs insulation, double glazing, condensing boilers, solar water heating and solar PV. In some cases, it carries out a complete eco refurbishment, cutting carbon by as much as 90%.
Mrs Hill, a resident in a newly retrofitted home, is thrilled with the results: “Our monthly fuel bills have come down from £125 a month to £75 a month. I used to have to pull on a jumper before I got out of bed, but now the house keeps the heat in really well.” Radian also builds new low-carbon homes, with a growing number meeting the highest efficiency rating – Level 6 – of the Code for Sustainable Homes. As a result of Radian’s work, nearly 44,000 people are living in better homes.
Now Radian is sharing its techniques with other housing providers, and training contractors to roll it out further. Without such efforts to bridge the skills gap Britain faces, many of the solutions needed to build a low-carbon economy will never be scaled up. Two other UK winners this year are rising to this challenge.
The pioneering Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales, runs postgraduate and professional courses in renewable energy and sustainable building, training up to a thousand students a year. They boast on-site technologies including hydro, wind, solar and biomass, and inspire many graduates to pursue work in the green sector.
A scheme that focuses on a younger age group, Young Energy People (YEP!), is training secondary school students to manage their schools’ energy, and in the process giving them vocational skills that could see them become the future leaders in this field. Schools can do a great deal to reduce their carbon footprint, but many are unequipped to go about it. The Severn Wye Energy Agency goes into schools to set up 25-strong teams of pupils, and helps them track and reduce energy use. The Agency is already working with 29 schools in Gloucestershire, and is attracting new partners eager to work with it in other regions.
With around 30% of Britain’s CO2 emissions coming from space and water heating, Midlands Wood Fuel is showing other businesses that by providing a reliable, high quality supply of wood chips, wood fuel can return as a mainstream, sustainable option for heating our buildings. They supply over 100 corporate, public sector and domestic customers across the Midlands, and in 2010 sold 5,253 tonnes of wood fuel – saving around 3,700 tonnes of CO2 compared to oil-fired heating.
Of course, carbon savings aren’t just to do with how we generate energy, but how we use it. It’s increasingly accepted that bringing people to work together is the best way to achieve real behaviour change on this front [see ‘Winning the persuasion game']. In one south Devon town, Transition Streets is doing just that. Run by Transition Town Totnes, it’s brought together 1,100 local people, who are finding that it can be both fun and empowering to work alongside their neighbours to cut carbon, and in the process save money and grow closer as a community. As one participant says “We’re learning a lot from each other – and we’re having a lot of fun as well!”
Juliet Heller is a freelance writer specialising in energy and development.
The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy is a Forum for the Future partner.
Photo credits: Ashden Awards