African Fuel Pioneer Uses Crisis to Innovate

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Crisis, as the old saying goes, is also a window of opportunity. And there is one African entrepreneur who knows this better than most. Daniel Mugenga has been on a journey of innovation that has led him to become a pioneer in the emerging new field of algae technologies. The story of how he got there is a testament to the power of using business to both solve problems and make profits.

Kenyan entrepreneur Daniel Mugenga has found a solution to the problem of high fuel costs for the transport sector in his country. He has been making money from turning waste cooking oil and inedible vegetable oil into biodiesel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel). He then discovered that he could boost his production of biodiesel by using marine algae as a source for oil.

According to the body that represents the algae fuel industry, Oilgae (oilgae.com), algae are “plant-like organisms that are usually photosynthetic and aquatic, but do not have true roots, stems, leaves, vascular tissue and have simple reproductive structures. They are distributed worldwide in the sea, in freshwater and in wastewater. Most are microscopic, but some are quite large, e.g. some marine seaweeds that can exceed 50 m in length.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has been investigating algae as a fuel source since 1978, and it is being investigated as a potentially transformative fuel source around the world. His business, Pure Fuels Ltd. (http://www.purefuels.co.ke/), is currently seeking venture capital funding for expansion and innovation. Pure Fuels is “a commercial producer of biodiesel and also manufactures biodiesel processors, which we sell to budding entrepreneurs,” says Mugenga.

The Pure Fuels website educates readers on biodiesel as well as offering opportunities for investors and news updates. Pure Fuels was registered as a business in Kenya in 2010.

The business was born out of crisis: in 2008 there were frequent fuel shortages in Kenya and prices were volatile. That was bad news for Daniel Mugenga’s job, working for a transport company with a fleet of trucks. Rising or volatile fuel prices can destroy businesses in areas like trucking, where the biggest expense is fuel.

Mugenga began to do research into fuel alternatives in the crisis and came upon biodiesel. He then set about training in how to produce biodiesel. A period of testing, trials and research ensued between 2008 and 2010, which enabled Pure Fuels to build confidence they had something that was high  quality. The company started producing 120,000 litres of biodiesel in 2010 and increased production to 360,000 litres in 2011 and 700,000 so far in 2012. In 2011, Pure Fuels had revenue of US $230,000 from selling biodiesel.

“We started off using jatropha oil, but when its price went up it was no longer profitable,” Mugenga told the VC4Africa website blog. “Having invested in the machinery, we switched to the next quickest alternative which is used cooking oil. We source it from several of the tourist hotels along the Kenyan coast.”

Turning to cooking oil for biodiesel at first was a good idea. The company was able to get enough waste cooking oil from Kenya hotels and tourist resorts to meet demand. But as demand rose, the thorny problem of Kenya’s tourism business being seasonal arose.

“For about five months of the year, many hotels in Mombasa temporarily shut down or operate at lower capacity. Of course this is affecting the amount of waste cooking oil,” Mugenga said. This is where algae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae) comes in.

Pure Fuels found a biotechnologist in Kenya to help develop a solution using algae as a source for fuel. While the company is keeping details of its innovation secret, it is currently hunting for investors to help increase the quantity of biodiesel it can make – and in turn, revenues.

Investor funds would be used to import non-edible vegetable oil and also to continue the company’s work on extracting oil from marine algae.

Pure Fuels make a bold statement on algae fuel development: it “may actually be Kenya’s next cash crop.”

Pure Fuels sells several products: there is the biodiesel itself, as well as a processing machine called the GXP-200, which can turn customers into biodiesel manufacturers themselves. The company also builds large, industrial-scale processors that can produce between 1,000 litres and 5,000 litres a day.

Pure Fuels currently sells fuel to truck, bus and tuk-tuk companies, and also operates biofuel stations.

The firm has patented its biodiesel and makes all its fuel go through seven quality checks for purity. An in-house laboratory ensures adherence to international standards, and the company is certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (http://www.kebs.org/).

Mugenga is a passionate advocate of biodiesel’s advantages: he believes it is cheaper, and better for engines and for the environment. He admits it does have a disadvantage: it gels below 13 degrees Celsius and must be mixed 50-50 with conventional diesel to stay fluid.

Pure Fuels encourages others to use biofuels for business, throwing in a home training kit with the biodiesel processors it manufactures and sells, complete with DVDs, manuals and a business plan. The GXP-200 biodiesel processor was developed after years of experience, and Pure Fuels hopes it will be bought by people who then set up businesses – especially youth, women and the disabled. As a further incentive, Pure Fuels promises to buy the biodiesel produced. The GXP-200 was recently awarded “Most Innovative Product 2012” at a small and medium business entrepreneurs event in Nairobi.

In Israel, there are a number of pioneers working on further developing algae as a biofuel source too. Isaac Berzin of Seambiotic (seambiotic.com) sees algae as a good source for biofuel because it does not compete with food crops like other biofuel sources (sugar, potatoes, corn etc.). Algae is among a group of so-called second-generation biofuels that includes jatropha, wood and castor plants.

The disadvantage of plant-based fuel sources is they need arable land and water. This seriously holds back their ability to meet the world’s demand for fuel since they would just take up too much land and water. Algae takes up less space and produces a higher yield per acre than conventional crops.

Seambiotic makes marine microalgae using the CO2 from electric power plant flue gas. It pioneered making large quantities of fuel algae in the United States, creating the first gallons of bio-diesel and bio-ethanol from marine microalgae.

Seambiotic is also working on a US $10 million commercial microalgae farm in China, partnering with China Guodian (http://www.cgdc.com.cn/), one of the country’s largest power companies. Another Israeli company in this field is UniVerve (http://www.univervebiofuel.com/). Its CEO, Ohad Zuckerman, runs the10-person company in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is developing a new biofuel from a special strain of algae that can grow quickly in a wider range of temperatures.

Resources

1) A website with all the details on biodiesel and how to make it. Website: http://www.biodiesel.org/

2) How to make your own biodiesel. Website: http://journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_make.html

3) Oilgae is the global information support resource for the algae fuels industry. Website: http://www.oilgae.com/

4) Algae as a superfood and cancer-fighter: Chlorella. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlorella

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