Tom Osborn,founder of Green Char

Every day, people have to cook. It’s a necessity to fulfil one of humankind’s basic needs: access to food. However, at what risk?

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 3 billion people in the world use charcoal and firewood and in Africa alone, the number is an estimated 888.3 million. Scaling it even further down, the number of charcoal users in Kenya is 38.5 million which accounts a whopping 84% of Kenya’s population*. The burning of this fuel as used in homes for cooking has devastating effects and can even kill. Most victims tend to be women and children as they are the ones actively involved in cooking meals.

Tom Osborn, a 19 year old Kenyan boy saw the harmful effects the charcoal was having on his mother and decided to do something about it. This led to the formation of GreenChar in Kenya. It is a clean energy start-up (started in December 2013) that produces charcoal briquettes for cooking purposes that are both healthier to use and last longer.

The coals he produces from recycled agricultural waste such as sugarcane, emit 90% less smoke, and have 60% more energy than the normal charcoal used for cooking.

Osborn and his company recognize that the earth is all that we have in common and he strives to protect it. His efforts have earned him numerous accolades including recognition from Forbes who have named him one of the global ’30 under 30′ social entrepreneurs. Additionally, he was selected as a 2014 Anzisha Fellow, winning US$10,000 from Donors’ Circle at the Anzisha Prize Gala Awards.

So how did he do it?

Armed with the knowledge he once randomly came across that charcoal killed more people than AIDS, Malaria and TB combined, he already had his motivation. He got in touch with MIT students who were researching about the potential of converting agricultural waste into charcoal. Osborn found out from them how to produce the healthier charcoal briquettes that GreenChar now offers the market.

charcoal briques
charcoal briquettes

The next step was convincing people to abandon the harmful charcoal they were used to using which he did by giving out free samples of the more environmentally friendly charcoal briquettes. When demand started piling up, Osborn and his team had to find a way to produce more than the 30kgs of briquettes they started out making daily. To do this he needed more staff and therefore more money which he got by product diversification. He partnered with Envirofit** to sell cook stoves in addition to the briquettes. The revenue generated from this was enough to allow GreenChar to scale up production to 150kgs a day, which still was not enough.

His saving grace came in form of Echoing Green which made him a Fellow for 2014, which comes with two years of funding totaling $80,000 (he is the youngest recipient to receive the fellowship in the organisation’s 27-year-history).

Using these funds, GreenChar bought two acres of land and started building its own manufacturing plant. The factory was completed in November and the company produces 2,000kgs of briquettes a day, with the capacity to increase this to 3,000kgs. The company has also set up a research and development team of university students from the University of Nairobi in Kenya to design GreenChar’s own cook stoves.

At such a young age, Osborn is making headlines for his innovation and entrepreneurship skills. As seen in, he notes that African youth have the greatest power in the continent however, they are unaware of how to sell their brands and ideas. His advice? First, just do it. Start taking action on that great idea you have. Second, focus on how to tell your story and sell your brand. And third, be aware of the risks; for him, he has had to make sacrifices such as postponing his college education to focus on the company which may cause problems if for whatever reason GreenChar does not work out.

*Kenya has a population of 45.6 million

**Envirofit is a global manufacturer of cookstoves that ensured optimum efficiency of his eco-friendly charcoal briquettes.


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