Field, fuel & forest: Fellows Friday with Sanga Moses

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When former accountant Sanga Moses ran into his sister on a far-from-home road carrying firewood on what was supposed to be a school day, his life changed. He knew that Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forests had big implications for the environment, but he hadn’t recognized the day-to-day effect it was having on the lives of his family and village. Now, with his company Eco-fuel Africa, Moses helps farmers transform agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and also sponsors tree-planting projects. Here, he tells the TED Blog about fast-changing ecological conditions in Uganda, and how he hopes to help restore the country’s forests as quickly as possible.

You started out as an accountant, and now you are an environmental entrepreneur. What was the moment that changed the course of your life?

I used to work for one of the biggest banks here in Uganda, and that meant that I was away from my home village. One day, I decided to go check on my mother and little sister. This was a Wednesday — and I ran into my sister on her way carrying wood. She saw me and started crying. She said, “I’m supposed to be in school today. But mother told me to go out and get the wood, and I do this at least twice a week.”

Seeing her didn’t surprise me at first, because I also carried wood as a kid. At first I didn’t get what was wrong. [When she started crying], I thought that maybe my mother was sick or something terribly wrong had happened at home. I helped her put the wood down, and we sat for a few minutes and I asked her, “What is the problem? Why are you crying?” She told me, “It’s about the wood. I’m supposed to be in school today. [But] my mom told me to skip school to go out and get the wood. ” I told her I would talk to our mother, and bring her back to a school in the city where I worked so she wouldn’t have to fetch wood.

But when I spoke to my mother, she said, “No, you can’t do that. She’s the only girl I have, I’m an old woman, I can’t survive without her. If you take her, I’ll be dead.” I went back to the city, but this conversation haunted me. I couldn’t really live my life anymore. I was constantly thinking about my sister, at the verge of losing the only opportunity she had to a better life — that is, education. And as a child who grew up in a rural area, my own life was transformed by education.

I wasn’t sure what to do. All I knew was how to be an accountant and work in a financial institution. But one night, I asked myself, “If I don’t don’t do something, who will? I am just complaining about what I can’t do, and my sister can’t go to school because she has to fetch wood.”

A young girl in Uganda carries wood. It's a sight that changed Sanga Moses' life. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

A young girl in Uganda carries wood. It’s a sight that changed Sanga Moses’ life. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

But wait, why had this become a problem when you’d fetched wood as a child yourself?

When I was growing up, we had a forest close by. It no longer exists now. I used to graze cows as a kid and we would graze in forests — have a lot of fun, play hide and seek. But kids these days don’t have that luxury. It’s all empty land — you can see virtually 50 kilometers away because it’s all empty.

The problem is that once people deplete the few forests remaining, they must venture further to find wood. At first, I thought I was just blowing my sister’s dilemma out of proportion, but it became clear that she is not alone. There are so many people — so many kids like her who can’t go to school because there are no trees left in the villages. At my office, where I had access to the internet, I did some research. I found that Uganda has already lost 70% of its forests. According to UN statistics, Uganda will have no forests left by the year 2052 if nothing is done to curb the current rate of deforestation. In a few years’ time, Uganda will have to import wood. But we’re talking about people who live on less than two dollars a day. If we imported wood, would they be able to afford it? And if they can’t afford cooking fuel, how will they survive?

So what you noticed was a connection between changes in the environment and a threat to your community’s way of life.

Yes. It’s actually about the entire ecosystem. When I was younger and we had forest, we were semi-nomads — a cattle-keeping community that traveled with cows. It was easy to take care of them, because seasons were stable, rains were predictable, we had water. In the last ten years, things have changed for the worse. Now droughts are becoming persistent. Actually, as I speak to you now, my family is relocating our cows to a distant area because there’s no water left in the village — also a problem of deforestation. Even in national parks, animals are dying, and the population of buffalo is getting lower, and people encroach looking for water. People are competing for the little that is remaining. And in mountainous areas where all the trees have been cut down, the hills are so dry they develop cracks. When it rains, landslides cover people’s houses and it floods — people are dying because of this. It’s not the world that I grew up in.

So it became clear that this was an opportunity to save the remaining forests, and also to build a sustainable business. I decided to quit my job.

What was your plan?

The first idea I had was to sell solar cookers. I thought maybe if everyone in the village had a solar cooker, kids wouldn’t have to miss school to get wood. So I bought a few, with the thought that I’d give one to my mother and sell others to the neighbors. But my mother called me up after two weeks. She said, “You come and pick your thing. I can’t use it at night, sometimes dust blows into the food, and when it rains, we don’t eat, because it doesn’t work.”

It became clear that that wasn’t a comprehensive solution. I had to go back to the drawing board.


Sieving biochar. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

How did you come up with the idea to convert farm waste into cooking fuel?

When I failed with my first idea, I went to Dr. Da Silva, a university professor, the head of the renewable energy department at Makerere, which I had attended. I said to him, “I am trying to find a solution to the problem of deforestation in this country, but I am just an accountant. I have no idea what I should do.” He gave me a lot of books, and I read about the possibility of combining farm waste and municipal waste into clean cooking fuel, while producing organic fertilizers. This made sense, because Uganda is predominantly agricultural. and no one uses agricultural waste: it’s usually burned and left to litter the villages. And drought has reduced crop yields and depleted soils.

So I saw a big solution to two problems: deforestation and food insecurity. That was very exciting.

I went back to him and said, I really like this idea, but I don’t know how to turn it into a solution that really works. He offered me his students, saying, “If my kids can work with you, we’ll help support you in any way.” He took me to his class, and said, “This young man is crazy enough to think that he can solve the energy crisis in this country. Who wants to help him?” Everyone’s hand went up.

With the help of the professor and his students, and using the university facilities, we made two pieces of technology. One is a portable kiln made of an old oil drum. It can be carried on a bicycle or two people can carry it. We give these to farmers, teach them how to carbonize and sieve agricultural waste, producing a powder called char. This is sold to us, and they keep the residues, the coarser portion of the char, as fertilizer. We also created simple machines — nothing sexy about them — to compress char into fuel that burns in the same stoves people already use. People don’t have to change the way they cook: it looks exactly the same as charcoal from wood, but burns slightly longer, and cleaner. It’s not as smoky. And we’ve developed a network of women who sell the fuel back to the communities.

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

What kinds of crops produce the waste that you recycle?

Everything organic can be recycled — waste from maize, beans, rice, or whatever anyone grows. Anything normally left after harvesting.

What year did you start this business, and how far have you come?

We started in June 2010, but we first put our success from that on the market in November 2010. We’ve grown so much since then, it has like more than tripled. We have 25 full-time staff, and a network of 2,500 farmers who produce the char. These smallholder farmers don’t work for us directly; they are independent entrepreneurs, but we give them the technology and train them, and then they sell what they make to us. Each farmer earns an average of $30 a month in additional income. For many farmers, this is their only source of income. And we have 260 women retailers, franchisees. They sell from a kiosk, and and an average  retailer earns about $5 a day from selling our fuel. This almost makes them middle-income women in these communities.

So is this a for-profit operation, or are you turning all of the profit into planting trees?

Actually, it’s a hybrid. I call it a social enterprise. Part of the money is re-invested in expanding the network, creating more farmers, creating more retailers and paying salaries. But a portion of our profit is dedicated to planting trees. We work in partnership with communities, especially with schools. Schools are very excited because they want to inculcate the idea of sustainability in their kids. So we donate trees to schools, and we established a co-op called I Am For Trees — this is like Scouts or Girl Guides in the schools. The school club will have days when they say, “Oh, this Saturday we want to plant some trees. Can you give us some tree seedlings we can plant in our local park?” For example.

How many trees have you planted so far?

We’ve planted close to 150,000 trees, but we are not yet where we want to be. It’s what we can realistically do, given our size and our scale. I hope, as we expand, that we shall plant more trees. We are still a drop in the ocean, really, because the country has virtually lost all of its forests. It will take a lot of time, and a lot of resources, to restore these forests.

Prosy, an Eco-fuel Africa micro entrepreneur. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

Prosy, an Eco-Fuel Africa micro-entrepreneur. Photo: Eco-Fuel Africa

What’s next?

Well, the plan is to continue expanding and train more farmers, reach more communities, enroll more schools in I Am For Trees, and stop depletion of the remaining forests. We still have about 30% of the forests standing. But they are under pressure, and we haven’t really covered even 10% of the country with our tree-planting program. We’re still in very few areas. The plan is to expand as quickly as we can, to ensure that all the trees that are left are not depleted for wood, and that we restore some of the forests that have been destroyed.

We do community outreach as we market our fuel, so we try to kill two birds with one stone. We demonstrate our fuel work, recruit more farmers, recruit more retailers, and recruit more schools. We show a video about the dangers of deforestation, sensitizing people about the importance of preserving forests and planting trees. And we invite local leaders to attend these meetings. But to be honest with you, I don’t think we can singlehandedly fix the problem. We are providing a solution, but there’s also a need to sensitize communities and the government to ensure that they understand they can’t just let independent citizens plant all the trees.

TED Fellow Jon Lowenstein visited Sanga Moses in Uganda in 2012 and produced a photo-essay called Sanga’s Dream. See the slideshow »