Why slum women are using porridge to make briquettes

Rose Akinyi at her work station in Manyatta slum, Kisumu County. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

When a group of women started using porridge to make briquettes for sale in Kisumu’s Manyatta slum, their neighbours gathered to protest. “How can they waste valuable food to make briquettes,” many wondered.

But Rose Akinyi, 69, was unmoved.

She cooked more porridge to make the compressed blocks of charcoal dust, quickly replacing the traditional charcoal as a source of energy.

That was last year, when the use of briquettes started gaining prominence in the slums of Kisumu.

Today, three other women have joined her and are laughing all the way to the bank.

But why do they use cassava-flour porridge to make the charcoal, locally known as ‘makhwangla’ -- slum language for waste?

Ms Akinyi explains that the porridge, which is fit for consumption, acts as an adhesive and cements the charcoal dust together to make the briquette.

Good adhesive

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Before they discovered that porridge is a good adhesive, Akinyi and her colleagues used clay to hold the waste together.

But this proved expensive and environmentally unfriendly since it emits too much smoke.

Akinyi says they make the porridge using two kilogrammes of cassava flour in a huge sufuria and leave it to cool overnight.

This can make one sack of briquettes.

She says cooking the porridge overnight helps them save time.

She mixes the content thoroughly with a spade to make sure every charcoal dust particle gets into contact with the porridge. For the best result, the mixture should not be watery.

“We don’t make it too wet or too dry, the mixture has to be fairly dry to bring out the best result,” Akinyi says.

Given that charcoal waste is the main raw material in making the briquettes, they must be shaped into a ball and this requires an adhesive material.

On this particular day, we found Akinyi working at her home.

She was being helped by a colleague, Gloria Okello, who was preparing large plates where the briquettes are placed when they are ready.

Once the mixture is ready, it is poured into a machine that compresses it firmly into the final product.

Akinyi then picks the ready briquettes from the machine and arranges them on the metallic plates, which she places on iron sheets to dry in the sun.

“The machine eases our work as we only do the mixing and it takes less time in doing the grinding and compressing the briquettes,” she says.

Ms Okello says they also use the porridge to lubricate the machine. She says they usually do this work with two other colleagues - Jael Okello and Elizabeth Ochieng who we did not find the day we visited.

The three came together to form a group called ‘Konyri Kendi’ (help yourselves) women’s group. The group also makes small biodegradable bags for packing the briquettes.

Okello says the final product takes a short time to dry, which means they are able to serve a high demand.

Akinyi says since they started making briquettes using porridge, they have never regretted the outcome.

The women say one can alternatively use wheat flour, which they avoid because it is costly. They buy four kilos of cassava at Sh200 and grind it at Sh30.

Akinyi says they buy a sack of charcoal dust at Sh400. This is enough to make a sack of briquets, which they sell at Sh1,800. They mostly sell to hotels by order.

They also sell in two kilo packs, which go for Sh50, and Sh300 per basin to neighbours and residents.

One of their customers, Kevin Odhiambo, is full of praise for the product.

“I first bought the briquettes at Sh100 just to try them out since I had been using charcoal all along. I found them cheap and easy to use. I use only four rods or balls of briquets to cook all my meals.

Mr Odhiambo said he did not expect to use such a small amount of fuel to cook meat, sukuma wiki and ugali without adding more briquettes to his jiko.

Saul Muthoka, a hotel operator, says he often orders for briquettes from the women. However, he switches to charcoal when the briquettes run out of stock.

“I used to mix the briquettes with charcoal until I learnt that I could use them independently,” says Mr Muthoka.

He runs a hotel in Kondele and says he finds briquets more economical.

Produce dust

He says once he fills his jiko with the briquettes, he can use it for hours to cook most of the meals he sells in his hotel. He uses the briquettes to deep-fry and boil food.

He, however, says the briquettes produce dust, which if not shaken away well make the ones added on not burn well.

Akinyi says the idea was introduced to them by an NGO called Practical Action, which trained them for two weeks.

She says that from a group of 18, the three of them were specifically trained to make porridge briquettes, which at first they doubted was possible.

Most briquette traders in Manyatta use clay but they chose to go the porridge way.

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briquettesManyatta slum