Our Toyota Hi-Lux brakes for a scraggy dog, the same tawny color and haggard-but-happy look of every dog I’ve seen in Malawi. We roll forward another few feet to stop before Sungani Mkandawire’s house in Mchengautuwa Bishop, just outside Mzuzu. He shyly grins as we step out of the vehicle. I look up and down the red-dust road, as chickens cross next to brightly uniformed schoolgirls who giggle at the out-of-place visitors. The wooden slats of roughly hewn logs make up the white-picket-fence version of a peaceful Malawian neighborhood.
Sungani pushes aside the gate so we can enter his front yard. To the left is a giant hill of sawdust from the local lumberyard and I smile in anticipation. Finally, we will get to see how Green Heat Malawi makes their sawdust briquettes.
Green Heat Malawi is the development enterprise of Sungani and his partner Alinane “Brown” Kilembe. Sungani is a two-time participant of the DELab and Brown joined him the second time to better strategize the growth of Green Heat.
A last minute challenge took Brown out of Mzuzu just before our visit, but they have both made remarkable improvements since those presentations in March. Lauren’s close coaching and edits combined with my incessant WhatsApp messages worked to prod a solid business plan, advanced product testing, and a more concrete definition of their path toward clear, measureable social impact.
What we came to see today are the results of that hard work. Green Heat Malawi consists of two primary products: a custom-designed cook stove and high-efficiency, environmentally friendly sawdust briquettes used in the stoves to heat food as well as for warmth.
They have been through many renditions of both stove and briquette, testing for both fuel efficiency and customer satisfaction, true scientists for innovation. They have proud faculty supporters from the university who facilitate connections with local businesses, while we seek to facilitate connections with investors. Both young men were quiet and focused at the DELab, but now Sungani talks excitedly about Green Heat, with obvious pride at all they’ve accomplished in the last several months.
He combines some ripped pages of old homework with a few handfuls of sawdust from the hill we passed earlier in a wide basin of water. He packs the mixture into a 3” circular tube before setting the tube upright on their hand-made briquette press. He pushes down on the lever, forcing the water out and squeezing the paper, cardboard, and sawdust mixture into a solid briquette, about the size of a baseball. With a grunt of strength, he gives the press one last jerk, takes the mound out of the tube, and hands it to us to study.
This small sawdust briquette will make a sincere impact on this Malawian community and perhaps, with scaling, the entire region. They have the potential to cut down on deforestation, as Malawi depends on the branches and the seared trunks of its trees for charcoal and firewood as its main sources of cooking fuel for a country of 16 million people.
Additionally, mothers preparing daily meals over low cookstoves frequently have babies pinned to their backs with both mother and child inhaling dangerous smoke. Green Heat’s briquettes are nearly smokeless, offering the chance to cut back on the high rates of respiratory deaths that stem from traditional practices.
We turn the briquette over in our hands, surprised at how light it is. The most important objective for Sungani and Brown right now is to obtain a larger, automated press so they can make more than triple their output of briquettes per day as well as compress the material further so that they can burn even more effectively. This production would allow them to meet orders they already have on hand from schools, clinics, and restaurants.
As we set the freshly made, densely packed briquette into the cookstove, we are all focused on the potential Green Heat has to make progress and stimulate change in Mzuzu. Their intention and skill is imperative in an energy-starved country, however, it is not enough to just have a great idea so we head inside to Sungani’s living room to discuss the next steps in their business strategy. There is still a long journey ahead of them, but with the right tools and resources, they will lead the way to clean energy in Northern Malawi.
Story by Angel Allendale
*If you would like to donate to Green Heat Malawi as they strive to bring a healthier, more environmentally friendly fuel source to Malawi, click here.
**For more stories on our entrepreneurs, read about our visit to Grace Phiri's vet shop here.