The entrepreneur Rogier Buker has been coming to Uganda regularly. The country stole his heart, but he has also seen it change dramatically. “In Northern Uganda there are almost no trees left. If we continue the deforestation at this rate, we’ll be done by 2030 or 2040,” he says. That is why he founded The Green Elephant: to prevent further deforestation.
"The problem is that around 90% of the Ugandan population cook on woodstoves. There are also about 2.5 million refugees in the country, who also cook on wood. Together they use around 50,000 kilos every day. That is a whole lot of wood," explains Rogier. "This does not only cause friction between the local population and the refugees, but it also creates health problems and destroys whatever is left of the forest."
Briquettes of elephant grass
Unfortunately there is no affordable alternative as of yet. "But we have found a solution," Rogier explains. "We started making briquettes from elephant grass. This grass absorbs more CO2 during its growth than it releases during cooking. This means that the briquettes are a CO2 neutral solution. Moreover because there is no need to cut any more trees,” he explains.
The only thing is that you need a different stove, because it is a slightly different way of cooking. "The hard thing about that is that it requires a change in culture. That’s moving a lot slower than we anticipated,” Rogier admits. “We are starting in hospitals, boarding schools and small and medium-sized businesses, because they are the ones who can and want to change. The consumer market is much harder to navigate. Hopefully when people start to become familiar with the briquettes and start talking about it, there will be a snowball effect.”
The second problem The Green Elephant wants to tackle with the elephant grass is the shortage of good cattle feed for the cows. "When they buy those cows, often abroad, they give 30 liters of milk a day. But because there is a chronic shortage of high-quality cattle feed, this will drop to twelve or thirteen liters within a year. This basically means their income will drop. "
The Green Elephant is now setting up a plantation of 80 hectares of elephant grass. The leaf is processed into cattle feed, the stems into briquettes. "We try to work together with different platforms to get the information about the feed to the farmers and explain the benefits. That is a process. We are pioneering: it's all completely new. "
Protein for people
The third issue that The Green Elephant is trying to solve, is that of human consumption. "Thirty percent of the population is undernourished and if they are not, they are often on the edge. This has to do with the fact that they eat very unilaterally, "explains Rogier. "We are now doing large-scale trials and hope to be able to extract protein from the grass by the end of next year. Then, hopefully, we can sell this in 2020 in the form of powder, which people can then mix in with their pancake batter".
The Green Elephant is continuously innovating and implementing novelties. "Awareness takes time," says Rogier. "Hopefully we will soon have a blueprint here, which we can roll out throughout Eastern Africa. If we can apply this on a large scale, it can be a real game changer. "Rogier hopes that other companies will stand up to help make this dream come true. "Not only for Uganda, but also for the neighboring countries."