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How this 28-Year Old Entrepreneur is Using Urban Waste to Bring Affordable Clean Energy to Low-Income Homes in Africa

Founder360 / Chebet Lesan

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How this 28-Year Old Entrepreneur is Using Urban Waste to Bring Affordable Clean Energy to Low-Income Homes in Africa

Only 1% of households in Kenya have access to clean energy for domestic use and the rest use traditional sources of energy like wood and charcoal for cooking. The demand for traditional charcoal is still high despite the fact that only 6% of the country is covered by forests. While this demand cannot be met because of the adverse effects of deforestation, there has been calls to embrace clean energy solutions for domestic use and one entrepreneur is already answering these calls by producing eco-friendly charcoals targeting low-income communities.

Chebet Lesan is the Founder and CEO of BrightGreen Renewable Energy, a company that designs, produces and distributes charcoal briquettes using recycled organic waste collected from different areas in Kenya.  It was in 2015 after attending a 2-month design and co-creation summit in Tanzania organized by MIT, that Chebet decided to venture into the clean energy movement with the desire to create a long-lasting impact on low-income communities.

3 years down the line, the 28-year-old industrial design graduate from The University of Nairobi has not only been able to develop a product has been embraced and recognized in Africa and the whole world as a whole but also gained her awards and recognition from the Queen of England, as she received Queen’s Young Leaders Award in 2017.

BrightGreen Renewable Energy has a team of 10 and has produced and distributed more than 500 tons of eco-friendly charcoal to institutions like hotels and schools and individuals within low-income communities. BrightGreen’s product branded MOTO charcoal briquettes are not only affordable, but they burn 3 times hotter, longer and odourless than the traditional charcoal.

Her mission to reduce deforestation while at the same producing affordable, clean, safe and eco-friendly charcoal briquettes has also earned her admission into the Mandela Washington Fellowship 2016.

And in early May 2018, The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves recognized Chebet Lesan as the winner of its Global Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award, an award program that recognizes outstanding female leaders in the household energy sector who are advancing clean cooking solutions in emerging markets.

Her passion, energy, and determination are vividly displayed through this one on one interview with Founder360° as she shares essential lessons on her journey through entrepreneurship.

Read: She Quit her First Career Choice, Medicine, to Build a Successful Business Accelerator

How did you convince these people to work with you especially in the early stages of the business when everything is uncertain and with limited finances?

I’ve learned that it is very important to build valuable networks. I am a firm believer in creating valuable networks. For example, in a 3-hour event, I’d rather spend 3 hours talking to 3 people than 10 minutes talking to 30 people. Aside from the number of people you know, how deep and valuable are your networks?

We live in a fast-paced world, where everyone is trying to get things done within the shortest time possible – but there’s one thing I don’t compromise on, relationships.

This is something that I cultivated early on in life and through campus with my friends. In the early stages of the company, I sought advice from my friends, who were engineers and designers. I remember how we would go for BrightGreen field research and tests, the only thing that I could offer them was lunch.

But I knew they believed in what I was doing and that they were not wasting time. Those relationships formed the stepping stone for where we are today

 

How were you able to finance Bright Green Renewal Energy from the start considering that it is capital intensive?

I had to put in my own money from the savings. You see, even if you approach investors and ask them to help you, eventually at one point, you will have this conversation – “how much have you ( the entrepreneur) put in?” And your response should not be pegged on sweat equity because everyone puts in sweat equity into his or her projects.

Putting your own money is an indication that you believe in what you are doing. Once I started approaching family, friends, and investors about investing in my venture, they had the confidence to commit themselves as well.

 

What did you learn through these initial stages of starting a business especially when it came to raising capital?

You have to be resourceful with money especially in the initial stages when you’re operating on a shoestring budget. To save money, find offers that would ultimately reduce bills. If you are resourceful with a small budget, with time, investors will entrust more to you. Be as frugal as possible, at the start.

You have to be resourceful with money especially in the initial stages when you’re operating on a shoestring budget. To save money, find offers that would ultimately reduce bills. - @lesanchebet Click To Tweet

Something else to note, when dealing with investors, establish a relationship first. Learn about them, what are their interests? What do they want to achieve in life? If someone is trying to achieve something in life, and what you’re doing is going to help him or her achieve it, then they are more likely to invest in you.

If somebody knows Chebet as a person, they are more likely to also invest in her as a person, her character, work ethic rather than in just her business venture

Charcoal Briquettes from Bright Green Renewable Energy

Charcoal Briquettes from Bright Green Renewable Energy

What is the primary target for your product? Is it individuals or institutions?

When I started my vision, my target was to serve the low-income market, a massive market which is challenging and time-consuming to reach. Currently, retail our product in 5, 2 and 1 kg packs which are affordable for people with low disposable income within the “kadogo economy.” Our aim is to ideally bring clean energy to low-income communities.

 

So how do you distribute these products to low-income households? 

Currently, we support entrepreneurial women with kiosks located within the community. We partner with them, train and supply them with the products and marketing support.

This is a strategy to recognize the powerful role women play in creating access to daily household products and to leverage on the relationships they currently have with customers, as a method to reach our end consumers.

 

What makes your product unique from any other player in your niche?

Our charcoal is smokeless, odourless, affordable and longlasting. These saves our users both precious time and money. The most important impact of our product is that it is reducing smoke pollution in homes, thereby decreasing smoke-related diseases in the user families.

Processed and Packed Charcoal Briquettes Ready to be Shipping

Processed and Packed Charcoal Briquettes Ready to be Shipping

What do you think are key pointers that entrepreneurs need to get a grip of when starting and running their business?

As an entrepreneur, one needs to have a vision. To see where they want to be in the next 10 – 20 years. Figure out which industry you want to be in and where that industry is heading to.  Secondly, aspiring entrepreneurs should free themselves from ignorance. Research and get more information in the space that you are getting into. Third, a business cannot operate in a silo.

Aspiring entrepreneurs should free themselves from ignorance. Research and get more information in the space that you are getting into. - @lesanchebet Click To Tweet

Entrepreneurs should stay up to date on what’s happening in the country and continent, watch the news and follow the legislation that is being enacted in your country. Those external factors ultimately affect your business.

Lastly, do not rush to take an investor’s money. Understand their language. Think thoroughly through your decision. Remember that the money is not yours and at one particular time, you will have to pay back with interest.

Read:11 Kenyan Women Entrepreneurs Making Inspiring Waves across Africa

Do you think being a woman-entrepreneur has contributed to your success considering the surge in women-focused programs within the entrepreneurial niche? 

I am a result of empowerment and mentorship from people who have believed in me. Personally, I believe more in individual character and ethics, rather than gender. All the same, we need to encourage more people to believe in themselves, whether male or female. Self-belief is one of the most important components that contribute to the success

 

Do you think being an entrepreneur has turned you into a better person? How?

Yes, totally. I have learned to listen better, communicate better and to think on my feet. I have learned that big challenges can be broken down into bite-size chunks that can be dealt with one at a time. Most importantly, working with a team, I’ve learned to uplift my team to be the version of themselves.

When you’re a team is happy, your customers are happy. I’ve also learned to speak in public, sharing my story with other budding entrepreneurs. If I can encourage someone else with my story, that’s progress for me and for them too.

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