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Award-winning researcher leads search for clean energy sources

Having grown up in a rural Kiambu village, Mary Njenga knows only too well the effect of wood fuel on communities, especially women and girls who are often charged with the responsibility of collecting firewood in Kenya.

“I remember how it felt to walk for long distances in search of wood, and later carry the heavy load on my back. I would arrive home at dusk very tired and with no energy to do anything else,” says Dr Njenga.

“Back in the kitchen, I and my sisters would sit around the fire as we helped mum prepare meals. All this time, we would inhale smoke emanating from wood fuel not knowing that it was dangerous for our health.”

These painful experiences coupled with her love for the environment drove Dr Njenga to search for an alternative cooking fuel that would benefit women and save them from the ordeal she had endured while young.

She began working with women groups that were already making briquettes in Nairobi slums such as Kibera, Kangemi, Kahawa Soweto and Maringo.

“Through my knowledge and science, I showed them how to produce charcoal briquettes of better quality that could burn for long without releasing dangerous emissions. So I improved on what they initially had,” she says. “I also trained them on marketing skills and sensitised them on the strengths of briquettes which would appeal to customers.”

Dr Njenga’s passion and hard work eventually paid off.

“As more and more women begin using the briquettes in urban slums and even in rural areas, their overdependence on wood fuel is significantly reducing,” she says.

In addition, Dr Njenga says, women who often bear the greatest burden of poverty are now generating income from the briquettes, improving their livelihoods.

The scholar says that whereas charcoal dust is widely used in urban areas to make briquettes, any biodegradable material such as rice husks, sugarcane stalks and cow dung can also be used.

For her great work, Dr Njenga has received international recognition, enabling her to reach out to communities worldwide. She has also published numerous research papers on the impact of alternative, safe and affordable fuel sources on rural and urban livelihoods.

She holds a PhD in management of ecosystems and environment from the University of Nairobi.

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