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Scaling up waste to fuel

 Photo: Sanivation
Photo: Sanivation

People in humanitarian settings often experience challenges with access to sanitation services and access to fuel and energy. To address these challenges, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), together with the Kenyan innovator Sanivation, set out to scale up a self-sustaining waste-to-energy sanitation system in Kakuma Refugee Camp. The project was supported by the HIP Norway Scaling Programme in 2018 and was discontinued in 2019.

Scope of the project

There is a lack of sustainable, safe and scalable sanitation and cooking fuel services in humanitarian settings, leading to disease outbreak, insecurity and environmental degradation. New technologies have been developed to address sanitation and fuel challenges, however few have been demonstrated at scale with replicable business models.

The Norwegian Refugee Council partnered with the Kenyan innovator Sanivation, to demonstrate a self-sustaining waste-to-energy plant at scale in Kakuma refugee camp. The plant could treat fecal waste and transform it into charcoal briquettes that can be used for cooking. The aim was to make the intervention self-sustainable by covering the operational and management costs of the waste treatment plant through briquette sales. The system was to be operated and managed by refugees and the host community.


Lessons learned

The key goal of this project was to deliver a financially sustainable treatment plant. Reaching this goal hinged on developing an appropriate and well-suited business model.

In 2019, Sanivation had a treatment plant in Kakuma Refugee camp that converted human waste to charcoal briquettes with capacity of producing 20 tons per month of sustainable fuel. Initial assessments showed that the briquettes were more energy efficient than alternatives available locally, and that the solution was culturally acceptable to the refugees in the camp. However alongside with the increased sales to reach this capacity, the project partners met significant barriers impacting their efforts and increasing the cost of selling and distributing the charcoal. Those key barriers were:

- Low cost of charcoal in the Turkana region, which is on average sold at 20 KES/kg whereas on average at 30 KES/ton in Kenya.

- Free distribution of fuel by UNHCR to refugees, which removed the incentive for refugees to purchase briquettes

This difficulty in increasing charcoal fuel sales would make it challenging for scaled treatment plant to recoup enough revenue to sustain operations financially. Several measures were taken by Sanivation and NRC to move around these barriers, e.g. proposing a model with a  Cash-Based-Intervention where refugees could receive  a voucher with which they could choose their own fuel supply, thereby creating a competitive market for various fuel supplies. Unfortunately, these efforts did not pan out.

An important lesson learnt from this project is that a quality solution to an identified need in itself will not lead to implementation and scale. Humanitarian operations are complex settings, and all actors need to be on board and collaborate to reach success.