You simply can’t finish a conversation about clean energy and environmental conservation without mentioning Bright Green. Meet Chebet Lesan, 28, the brilliant vibrant visionary behind Bright Green Renewable Energy, Kenya. Bright Green is a Kenyan based company that is trying to promote clean fuel through their Moto Brikets, which are cheap eco-friendly charcoal briquettes by recycling urban waste from towns and agricultural waste from farms; playing a key role in providing clean affordable renewable energy for low income households. This helps to curb the massive deforestation caused by charcoal burning and cleaning up our environment.
Techmoran met with Chebet Lesan at the company’s manufacturing site in Karen, Nairobi. The plant sits on a little over half an acre, on it sits a little rustic cabin, that serves as the meeting room for Lesan and her team. Here is what she had to say.
Tell me about yourself, your educational background.
My name is Chebet Lesan, I am the Founder and CEO of Bright Green Renewable Energy, Kenya. I am in charge of product innovation and development and strategic partnerships, managing the execution of tasks and operations in the company. However this is a role I am considering handing over so that I can focus more on founding. My strength is more in creating and designing other than managing day to day activities of an organization. Being a CEO doesn’t allow me to exercise my creative side fully, because instead of focusing on the product it compels me to focus more on management and growing the company financially.
I studied Industrial design at UoN, where I was involved with various people at Fablab maker space there. Which is where I learned a lot about engineering and design, that played a pivotal role in the development of Bright Green.
Tell me about Bright Green, your team
The team consists of 8 people, 6 permanent staff and 2 contractual employees. Our roles are a bit jumbled up as one would expect of a startup, but we mainly consist of marketers, a logistics and research person and a production team. We set up in 2015, which is when we did a lot of product development, and research, we set up the production plant in 2016 before getting to market later the same year. So we have been in business for about 1 year 3 months. We also have volunteers and interns every year, they come to learn the art of making briquettes as well as experience what it is like to work in a startup. In January last year we had two ladies from MIT join us for a few months. We spend most of our time out in the field actually, we only meet for a few hours to consolidate our thoughts.
What market gap did you spot that motivated you to venture into this business?
I traveled to Tanzania in 2014, for a summit that brought together global participants, from all parts of the world. I hadn’t realized the extent to which it was a local innovation based summit when I applied. The group I was placed in was based on a little village at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At the time there were measures being taken by Tanzanian government to protect the forestland from deforestation and further destruction as is resultant of global warming. Fences were being erected. We got to stay with some local communities. And did everything from eating, to bathing with them. However they faced a massive challenge when it came to cooking. In as much as we brought our own food, everyone had overlooked the need for fuel needed to cook said food. They would gather leaves and twigs and burn them, a cumbersome effort that was never enough either way. That is when the question came up, why can’t we use biomass waste as raw material to create affordable charcoal briquettes? (MIT had once worked on a similar project before). We went about this, and even left the community using the briquettes, making it for their home use. Some of them even went ahead to make more and sell to others. The mind shift I had when I came back to Nairobi, I begun to study the charcoal prices and process, the charcoal value chain, what it would mean for our environment if trees got finished, and the market that relies on charcoal, and I figured that Kenya too could benefit from a more sustainable and affordable charcoal. Hence I decided to jump in and implement it.
One more thing we spotted is, charcoal is considered as a poor man’s fuel, a fuel they choose not due to lack of choices but because it is what they can afford at the time. Introducing fancy stoves still locks them out so we decided to come up with a product that serves the needs of the bottom of the pyramid customer while still conserving the environment.
How have the sales been like since the product hit the shelves?
In the beginning sales were rough. There is always that push-back, people asking, ‘What’s this?’ Charcoal has been used for so long it’s almost a cultural thing now. People question your intentions and ability to replace something that has been in use for centuries. But slowly, we begun to understand our market people were ignorant about what briquettes were to begin with. We went about user education and realized that every customer had their specific needs and preferences, and we tweaked our recipe to suit every niche. Some customers wanted a very long burning product, some wanted a very hot product that lights up fast. So we set onto playing around with our recipes to ensure we have the different products to satisfy the needs of all our customers and since then sales have picked up.
Our factory produces about 3 tonnes a week, all of which is sold and cleared out in readiness for the next weeks batch.
Who is your main competition and what do you do to stand out from them?
In terms of competition, we haven’t yet faced massive competition and push back from the long time charcoal distributors as they are still trying to figure out what exactly the briquette is. I will use the example of Uber. When it got to Kenya they had a happy time setting up because taxi drivers had not realized that it was a threat to them, till later on it hits them that all their customers are now using Uber.
Besides local distributors of the normal charcoal there are various companies offering eco-friendly charcoal, the biggest among them is Charbrick, which has been around for a while.
We are different from our competition in that we are more than just a company but are a social enterprise as well. We are ensuring that we empower women as the main distributors for these briquettes, to try and make them take up the value chain and own it. Currently the main distributors of charcoal are men whilst the main users are women.
We are also actively empowering Kenyan youth to see that they can make it working solely with the resources they have at hand.
Our brand is also very striking, the product is beautifully packaged.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced since the inception of the business.
The main challenge is a lack of injection of funding to push product into the market and also to product develop the product till it gets to a point where it can compete with charcoal. Theres a big challenge to change the mindset of our target market that this briquette is actually better than charcoal.
In 2017 you won the Queens Young Leaders Award, and even flew of to the UK to receive it. In what way has this impacted your business?
This greatly impacted my business, through the impact it had on me. We were taken through a year long leadership course at Cambridge University. It taught me how to understand myself, my strengths, weaknesses, how to envision my thoughts and understand my environment. It was very wholesome. Other leadership trainings and conferences focus on how to lead other people, but this one taught me how to lead myself; because there is no point in leading others if you can’t lead yourself. Most of our homework was self reflection.
Also the recognition came with a lot of opportunity. Media and press coverage came by the truckload. The image taken whilst shaking the queens hand is such a massive vote of confidence and has opened several doors for us in terms of strategic partnerships for Bright Green.
What advice would you give to upcoming entrepreneurs?
I don’t think a lot of people really understand what it really means to be an entrepreneur, mostly because of how it has been romanticized by the media. They are so flamboyant, or rather they are pictured to us as so. But it really is not that. People never see the ugly underside of being in business which is what really determines the success of a business. They need to go into business whilst anticipating the hard work that will come with it. A startup requires flexibility, where you are the marketer and the handy work like engineering as well.
Where can one get Moto Briquettes for their personal use?
Currently our briquettes are available on order. We have a number of distributors in local areas. We are soon getting into Tuskys and Naivas.