In the Kenyan village of Naro Moro in the foothills of Mount Kenya near lush forests, I recently met Josephine Wanjiru and other members of a women’s group she leads. The transformation in their lives in the past two years has been remarkable. By planting trees and collecting previously discarded tree seeds during their vegetable crop low season, they have been able to use the seeds to make commercial products like bio-pesticides, soil conditioners, and moisturizers like the Cape Chestnut oil I brought home from my trip.
Josephine’s village is the home of Kenya’s  growing biodiesel business run by the Help Self Help Centre  (HSHC), a non-governmental organization supported by the Africa Energy Unit at the World Bank since 2010 as part of their Biomass Energy Initiative for Africa (BEIA). Through this initiative, we hope to demonstrate the feasibility of “social biofuels” – meaning small in scale, and both produced and consumed locally.
In this village, almost 200 km from Nairobi, everything starts and ends with the native Croton tree. Their inedible seeds were historically of little economic value but when pressed, they produce oil, which is now being processed into biodiesel at a rate of 1000 litres a day, up from 300 litres daily before the project started.
It’s the spin off from this business that is creating the buzz in Naro Moro. Local people like Josephine are trained to maximize the resources around them, start their own businesses and improve existing businesses. Women’s earnings have gone up by 6000 schillings a month helping to cover school and household expenses. Kieni East District Officer Deborah Mwarania told me that primary school enrolment is up, food aid reliance is down and there are fewer recorded family disputes.
As well as the bi-products from the seeds, large scale tree seedling planting is another triumph. 456,000 seedlings have now been planted in the forest and farms surrounding Naro Moro, giving the biodiesel business a better chance of surviving, addressing deforestation, and cutting carbon emissions.
In tandem, new clean and efficient bio cook stoves have been given to 356 families as part of the BEIA initiative. Local families, beneficiaries of the initiative, say the stoves save them 20 kg of firewood, a quantity of wood which lasted five days with traditional stoves and now lasts over a month. As well as producing far less smoke, they produce organic charcoal after cooking, which can be reused. The stoves are made and sold locally now too.
On return from Kenya my suitcase contained more than just a new moisturizing oil – the bottle and its contents are a daily reminder of Jospehine and the thousands of people who have been given tools to really transform their lives though the nine BEIA pilots we ran across Africa in recent years. Showing how biomass projects can create employment opportunities for a community, empower women, incubate entrepreneurship and protect the environment will help ensure they are replicated and hopefully scaled-up across the continent for many years to come. So much can come from a simple seed.