Profile: 2014 Powerful Answers Award Sustainability Winner Eco-Fuel Africa

Founder Sanga Moses explains how his company’s fuel source is changing the lives of Ugandans in surprising ways.

By on March 18, 2015

Verizon is now accepting ideas for the 2015 Powerful Answers Award 

Expanding its ongoing commitment to innovation and social responsibility, we are currently accepting submissions for the chance to win up to $1,000,000 in prize money. Enter here by June 18th, 2015: verizon.com/powerfulanswers/award/

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In Sanga Moses’ village in rural Uganda, electricity is scarce and reliance on wood fuel is a way of life. Up to 96 percent of the fuel used to cook and boil water is harvested from the nearby forest, mostly by women and children.  

“At first, I didn’t think it was my problem to solve,” recalls Sanga. One day, that changed. He returned home to his village to find his younger sister crying as she carried a heavy load of firewood on her head. “I thought something terrible had happened, but she told me that she was crying because she was tired of missing school to gather wood,” Sanga says. “That was the turning point for me.”

Sanga realized that his sister wasn’t alone. In addition to causing widespread deforestation and high CO2 emission, reliance on wood fuel was taking away thousands of hours of education time from the young people of Uganda.

“I wanted to find a different fuel solution that would work for Uganda, which is mostly agricultural,” he says. He began to research green energy solutions from places like the Amazon, and came upon the idea of green charcoal made from natural waste. “As I read about it I looked out my window and saw a pile of sugarcane waste just sitting there outside. I was excited. I said, ‘I might have a solution that will work here.’”

Eco-Fuel Africa’s green charcoal is a carbon-neutral biofuel made from sugarcane waste, coffee husks and rice husks. It burns clean, without the heavy smokiness of wood fuel. It also costs less – both in terms of money and time necessary to harvest it. To Sanga, it was important that his solution should be both inexpensive and efficient. “Most families in Africa have a limited income,” says Sanga. “They can’t afford to invest in more than one solution.”

With $500 in his pocket and the help of some local university students, Sanga set out to produce green charcoal. The group also began to train farmers in rural areas how to make it for themselves, creating a network of micro-franchises across the country. Within the first year in production, Sanga estimates Eco-Fuel Africa saved 50 million productive hours and mitigated 500,000 tons of CO2.

It was an auspicious start, but when a friend emailed him about the Verizon Powerful Answers Award, Sanga knew he had an opportunity to catapult his solution to the next level. “At first I wasn’t sure about entering,” he admits. “I thought it would be people from Stanford and Harvard. Who are we to enter? But my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?”

Not only did Sanga and Eco-Fuel Africa get through the first round, the company went all the way through to the winner’s circle, winning the 2014 award for Sustainability, and a 1 million dollar prize. “At first I thought it was a lie,” laughs Sanga. “Even now I have to tell myself that it’s true. It’s like I’m in a dream.”

“Many investors can’t even find Uganda on a map,” he says. “So the support from a major company like Verizon is a game changer. Just knowing that Verizon has invested in us makes it easier to attract other investors. Not to mention that, thanks to the Verizon grant alone, we’ll be able to reach about 42,000 more houses.”

The current demand for Eco-Fuel Africa’s green charcoal outstrips supply, so Sanga plans to also use the Verizon prize money to expand production. He dreams that one day the operation might be large-scale enough to move into other countries like Rwanda and Zaire. As production expands, he also believes there will be immediate economic benefits for communities that use green charcoal; the company plans on creating more than 1,000 new jobs by December 2015.

Sanga says his mother and sister are still in disbelief that he’s won an international award. They may soon see the impact of his powerful solution first-hand, as green charcoal continues to be adopted across Uganda. “The grant from Verizon has changed everything,” says Sanga. “It has given us the opportunity to dream.”

To watch a short video of Sanga’s story, click here

Adria Tomaszewski is a senior consultant on the Verizon Wireless Corporate Communications team. Follow her on Twitter at: @VZWAdria.


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Tags: Verizon Powerful Answers Award, sustainability