Waste powering Uganda’s markets
When Sarah Basemera at the Raising Gabdho Foundation (RGF) discusses obtaining funding for her idea for a renewable energy project that would both benefit Ugandans and refugees, she laughs. “We got seed funding it was about $3000.” This $3000 was going to solve Uganda’s energy issues and employ a team of 30 people. “We picked charcoal briquettes. Everyone uses charcoal. So how could we bring a product to market that they already knew how to use?” Uganda is a country that relies heavily on charcoal, especially for cooking and heating, with estimates suggesting that anywhere from 85% to over 90% of households use it for cooking. With this in mind, RGF initially decided to help people produce biomass briquette alternatives themselves. For a number of reasons this just did not work. Less than a year after, RGF decided they would start producing the briquettes themselves. “Now we just needed to work out how to operate as a business and make the briquettes affordable and accessible for people.”
Six years and an IAP grant later, Sarah describes how they have grown. “We make four different types of briquettes, and we have an office, something we’d never had before.” she exclaims. “Now we have a factory that we are currently completing.” The factory is operational and although much of the carbonisation of farm waste and sawdust was done in furnaces, today a new carboniser is in place and assembled and tested, promising to make the process a whole lot cleaner.
Many were wary of RGF’s retail business model, and it did take some working out. “First, we sold majorly to a large scale poultry farm which collapsed during COVID. We then went to the markets and just sold to everybody. Then one day we woke up and we had a list of 300 people who owed us very small amounts of money. It was just too much. You set up a meeting to call 300 people just to follow up their $5 or $3? It just wasn’t working.” Again, RGF had to come up with a new sales model.
The agent model they created sees one main agent in each market, a single point of contact. What is more these are exclusively women who are better able to work with the many other female market vendors. In Nakawa market in Kampala, they now only have one woman that they invoice and collect cash from. That same woman also manages the market’s other distributors. Owning their own business in the market, the agent already has good contacts in the market predominantly among female vendors and can build strong relationships with them. The agent is supported by an RGF employee who comes in regularly and checks stock levels, making sure that vendors and kitchen users have adequate supplies. Purchases by these individual briquette and stove vendors and the sales to the numerous small kitchens that dot the north side of the market see RGF now making a profit.
RGF have been using vendor agents for five months. They have been integral to supporting the 108 distributors across Kampala’s markets and also in RGF’s bid to find new clients. “We have about five restaurants who are constant users of our products, and other users are coming up.” Looking at the potential for growth to illustrate, Sarah says, “Each market has about five hundred vendors. What would it be like if five hundred vendors, each of them, just bought a kilo or two daily?” To scale, RGF are using whatever means they come across in their retail approach. In “Pushing” their retail strategy Sarah explains that, “The markets have their own community radios. So, we’re testing some adverts that fit. The onsite stalls are also cheap. We really are getting to a place where we feel comfortable with the retail side of things.”
RGF also produce cookstoves. Once more they started out with independent stove producers, but they proved unreliable. Now they make their own. “Our top of the line model is being certified. Now we’re working on the communication and packaging, to make sure we release it to the market and our distribution network at the right time.” RGF are hoping that the certification and the trust they have built in their briquettes will add to the confidence of the final users. “We’re also looking to extend our product line. We’re thinking of producing special barbecue briquettes. Then we can make aromatic briquettes, the ones that that add flavour to your meat, like we have seen in other countries.”
Alongside the modernisation of their carbonisation of biowaste and expansion of their product line, other changes are coming. The confidence they have built among their customer base is paralleled by their own, internal confidence. “Our team is strong. In the past we had one person who had to run all of this, but today I can confidently send any team member out to a meeting. Our finance is getting strong, our systems are much better.” This confidence is leading them to take the next step: digitisation.
“We are digitising our sales point. We have an app: (www.zeedenergy.green). Agents weren’t really buying through it at first but people were visiting.” This is changing things for RGF and their customers. Sarah says that the app is giving legitimacy to their products. “People visit, they see a picture of the product and they know it is there.” As they expand, without the digitisation of sales, RGF would face the uphill battle of simply physically reaching all of their customers. Sarah says. “We can’t be everywhere because of the retail costs, but by having the digital platform we are everywhere. It makes it easier for people to say, ‘send me your product catalogue, send me your price list’. It is much easier than sending the same piece of paper one after the other. We just drop them the link with the catalogue on top. It helps a lot.”
It is still early days for RGF. Market vendors do not purchase through the app yet. “For them this product is new. It’s just like ‘It’s okay’, but once they see those numbers, that things are happening and that the product is moving, they will be ready to be onboarded. Then they can just punch in an order.” explains Sarah. That the Ugandan market is not quite ready for digital apps is echoed by other businesses across Uganda, but RGF have taken the important step of convincing their consumers to pay online. “This was the first digital moment for them. They would say, ‘Come and get your money’ but we said no. This got them paying online using mobile money.” says Sarah. An issue with all online transactions in Uganda is the charges and taxes that come with online transactions. Although small, this is often a deterrent for the agents that make the payments. RGF have found a bank that can integrate several mobile money providers for a lower cost. For the bank, being able to link themselves to environmentalism and women is certainly why they are interested. In a country where charcoal alone accounts for more than eight times the country’s total CO2 emissions, this is a pivotal step for RGF, certainly for the banking sector and indeed Uganda’s credibility as the first African nation to to commit to the UNFCCC’s REDD+ guidelines.