Tom Osborn is a social entrepreneur who has turned adversity into fortune, for himself and his community. He grew up in Awendo, a rural community in western Kenya, in a household that used firewood to cook. In his teen years, while studying at Alliance High School, Osborn stumbled on material that enumerated the hazards of inhaling the smoke from firewood and charcoal, which also noted that it kills more people than AIDS, Malaria and TB combined. He thereafter began to think of how to reverse the trend.
Osborn put together a team that researched how to develop safer forms of household energy and immediately after high school, in 2013, aged 17, he launched Greenchar, a company that produces smokeless charcoal briquettes from revitalised agricultural waste and distributes clean cooking stoves. He credits his childhood experience as inspiration for his innovation.
“I never envisioned myself as a social entrepreneur,” he told Tonyloyd. “I wanted to solve a problem that affected me as an individual.”
With the help of local artisans, he made his first set of briquettes in his parent’s backyard using material that cost only $50. He scaled up production with funding from the Anzisha Prize Energy Award which he won in 2014.
“Our goal at GreenChar is simple; build cooking technology that is affordable and provides clean energy in Africa,” he said.
In keeping with his ambition, Greenchar’s briquettes are smokeless, longer lasting, and 38% cheaper than charcoal made from woodchip, according to information on the company website. The company also makes and distributes clean stoves that optimise its briquettes, conserving heat and reducing emission.
It is estimated that Kenya looses 50,000 hectares of forest annually due to firewood and charcoal production and that over 36 million Kenyans are affected by household air pollution, Triple Pundit said. By using agriculture waste from sugarcane and maize, and not wood for its charcoal, Greenchar is helping to mitigate deforestation and its impact on the environment.
Through his work at Greenchar, Osborn said he has learnt that anyone can create social impact in his or her community.
“Although there are a lot of problems in Africa, these problems provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to create solutions that can be lucrative and make money, whilst driving sustainable change within their communities,” he said.
Greenchar’s ‘Makaa Poa’ line of briquettes is designed for use in households while the ‘LongBurn’ brand is distributed in large institutions. In a 2014 interview with CNBC Africa, Osborn revealed plans to launch a production facility capable of producing 3,000 kilogrammes of charcoal per day by the end of the year. The company may have become a prominent player in the clean energy market in Kenya, however, Osborn has said, his vision is to be the ultimate provider of clean energy in Africa.
The company has received funding totaling over $90,000. The highest single funding so far came from the Echoing Green Fellowship, worth $80,000, with entrepreneurship and leadership development support. He was selected as one of 42 fellows in 2014, making him the youngest person to be awarded the fellowship. Osborn has been a winner of the Global Minimum Innovate Kenya, and is a Golden Climate Environmental Project Olympiad Silver Medalist.
On his entrepreneurial journey, Osborn has learnt that failing is part of the business. “Things are not always going to work the way you want them to,” he said. “The main thing is how you handle failure. Every time I fail, I carry out a post-mortem of the failure and lessons learned. I try to use my experience to draw lessons from it and plan how I can move forward.”
His philosophy in life, he has said, is to be different, not conforming to limiting societal systems.