Interview with Speakers - Linda Davis

We are excited to present a new series of interviews the Marketing Director, Estefania, conducted with some of the speakers of SES 2019. The interviews were held in the months prior to the Summit with the aim to present some of the energy leaders who will be speaking during the Summit and foster an exciting and informed discussion in anticipation to the event.

The fourth interview of this series is with Linda Davis, CEO of Giraffe Bioenergy. Giraffe Bioenergy is developing large-scale fuel ethanol biorefineries in Kenya. Its cassava-to-fuel ethanol systems reduce the reliance on charcoal and firewood for cooking while improving, health, reducing deforestation, improving livelihoods and addressing climate change.

Estefania: Over 80 percent of Kenya’s population cooks with charcoal and firewood. What is restraining the transition towards cleaner fuels?

Linda: Kenyans have done a good job in popularizing alternative technologies like liquified petroleum gas (LPG), especially in urban areas such as Nairobi and Mombasa. In fact, people are aware about the usage of this fuel, but affordability is still a relevant constrain. In contrast, low income communities in urban areas use charcoal as its main energy source. This fuel is used by over 75 percent of the population as part of a practice known as “fuel stacking” where households use a variety of fuels to accomplish their cooking needs. In rural areas, firewood is most commonly used. The environmental cost around charcoal and firewood activity is high, as these trees come from natural old growth forests. 

Giraffe Bioenergy’s proposal is centered around ethanol, an alternative technology that is being increasingly accepted as a safe, affordable and clean alternative to charcoal and kerosene in the urban areas. Ethanol as a cooking fuel does not have a detrimental effect on health and forests. At the moment, the ethanol fuel used for this purpose is imported from the global markets ad there is a massive supply gap from local production. Our aim is to establish local production of ethanol to foster rural development, economic opportunities for small-scale farmers and create a steady market for their crops, specifically the cassava plant.

Estefania: What are the involved stakeholders during this process?

Linda: Looking at the cassava plant value chain, the first stakeholder is the small farmer.  Small farmers represent over 75 percent of Kenya’s population, as the African Sub-Saharan region relies mainly on subsistence agriculture. Women would be strongly benefited from having a reliable market for cassava as they are the ones responsible for working the land and act as household energy managers. In addition to establishing a network of small holder farmers to produce cassava, the Giraffe Bioenergy model also includes a state of the art biorefinery producing starch and power in addition to ethanol, so many jobs will surge around its construction and operation. 

There are some intermediate processing activities along the value chain. For instance, cassava plant needs to be harvested, peeled, chopped and dried, so there will be many activities surrounding the biorefinery as well. In this sense, I am very keen to develop inclusive policies within Giraffe Bioenergy’s overall operations where women are encouraged to learn new skills and have stable jobs. At last, the other key stakeholder are the end-users who tend to be women and children who often have the responsibility of cooking in many households. Finally, last-mile distribution will be facilitated by an established network of off-takers, including large petroleum companies and technology enabled organizations that have streamlined these logistics services.

Estefania: What was the rationale behind selecting cassava plant as the main source for ethanol production?

Linda: Every single part of the cassava plant is used during its processing. The peel can be converted into biogas to power the biorefinery and the starch in the root could be converted to ethanol. In addition, sub-products like cassava flour, industrial starch and high maltose syrup (HMS) could be commercialized in local and foreign markets. In this sense, the biorefinery is analogous to the concept of a petroleum refinery as it produces many goods from one source. 

Under this scenario, the food versus fuel debate is not relevant for many reasons. Firstly, our approach aims to increase the productivity of small farmers. Small holder farmers growing cassava for the biorefinery will receive associated benefits like learning good farming practices to double or triple its yields after participating in our program. Secondly, as we visualize a good pricing for cassava, the farmer can dedicate additional unused or underutilized semi-arid land for its production. Thirdly, the farmer always has a choice. They can eat the cassava or sell it to the biorefinery. From the point of food concern, the Giraffe Bioenergy program does not represent a conflict, especially when the diversification of food sources from individual farms will deliver income to communities. 

Estefania: What have been the market response towards this business model?

Linda: At this point, ethanol cooking has experienced a demand-driven response. There has been a lot of piloting around ethanol cooking and countries like Aruba are experimenting a relevant growth. Last June, the government removed tariffs on ethanol cooking in Kenya as they recognized the untapped potential it holds for the national market. Now, it is cheaper to use ethanol than LPG, charcoal or kerosene. As demand grows, local supply of ethanol has been insufficient to satisfy the market there stimulating opportunities such as the Giraffe Bioenergy model that will provides a domestic, effective solution to solve the problem of lack of clean cooking alternatives in Kenya.