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Fuel from waste

Wyn Griffiths BA, PGCE, MSc, FRSA

ROLE: Senior Lecturer
SCHOOL & DEPARTMENT: Faculty of Science and Technology Department of Design Engineering and Mathematics

Middlesex's design expertise helps Kenyans manufacture a cheaper, more sustainable alternative to charcoal

You might not think that a life-sized elephant made of factory waste and a fuel briquette have much in common. But for Wyn Griffiths, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University's School of Science and Technology, they were both part of the same challenge: to use participatory design to bring about social and environmental change. Griffiths' recycled elephant, which was built in Covent Garden to celebrate World Animal Day, was crafted from rolls of grey teabag material, old palettes and the cardboard inner tubes from carpet rolls. When he was asked to help Kenyans manufacture briquettes from household waste, he brought the same innovative approach to the problem. The result was the pioneering 2011 unConference on Fuel from Waste.

Griffiths had been working with an NGO called Terra Nuova (East Africa), which specialises in agricultural and sustainable community development in East Africa. Many Africans are heavily dependent on charcoal to heat water and cook, despite government restrictions on logging. Some spend as much as half their household income on it. "Every few hundred metres there's a charcoal seller," explains Griffiths.

Meanwhile, domestic waste is usually dumped, due to the lack of rubbish collections in informal settlements. Terra Nuova was helping Kenyans to make their own briquettes from biomass waste, and empower them to start their own businesses selling it. Alongside Kenyatta University engineers, they had been working in partnership with 'Jua Kali' artisans, to develop new, more efficient manual briquette machines and briquette-burning stoves. Middlesex University product designers helped extend this work, through the use of Design Thinking, Human-Centred Design and Computer Aided Design and Analysis. The broader challenge, Griffiths realised as the project progressed, was to share people's expertise and give the briquetting movement momentum. "Everyone realised there were lots of people doing incredibly creative things, but they weren't able to share their expertise to produce something greater than the sum of the parts."

Together with Terra Nuova, Kenyatta University, the Middlesex University design and innovation centre redLoop and local community groups, and funded by the British Council and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Griffiths organised the two-day unConference in Nairobi, Kenya. Eighty people took part in the workshops and hundreds more visited the accompanying exhibition. "It was something that nobody involved had ever done before, or that had been attempted in this domain," says Griffiths. The unConference was based on the same principle he applies as Programme Leader of the BA in Product Design at Middlesex and Associate Director of redLoop - that design "is something you do with people, not for or at them".

Many of those who attended were women who wanted to improve their briquetting techniques and generate some income for their families. They shared ideas on the most efficient ways of manufacturing, marketing and selling briquettes, and how to scale up production - a "roadmap for the future of briquetting in Kenya," as Griffiths puts it. "Financially and environmentally, briquettes perform better than charcoal. But people don't always see it like that. We talked about certification and quality control, and how people need a coherent perception of a breakthrough, disruptive product like this."
Lucy Wood of Terra Nuova was enthusiastic about the unConference: "Bringing together small‐scale entrepreneurs with formal businesses and higher education institutions helps the jua kali enhance their productivity and thereby their profits," he said. "It's a win‐win situation using 'would‐be' waste while protecting the environment and improving livelihoods."

Griffiths went on to set out a new methodology for participatory design in a short timeframe, which he calls the "four Es" - Establish, Elicit, Embed and Employ. He presented the resulting paper at the 2012 conference on Designing Interactive Systems at Newcastle University. In addition, Fuel From Waste has been part of Middlesex University's Africa Group of projects, a cross-School collaboration to share knowledge about Africa - "focusing on what we can learn from Africa, rather than what Africa can learn from us".

He would now like to take the Fuel from Waste exhibition on the road in east Africa, to share expertise, enable future innovators and build the movement, and organize more events - possibly even an annual unConference. Griffiths is currently in discussions with a briquetting project funded by a major US institution. In the meantime, he continues to share ideas and help with enquiries about briquetting on the Fuel From Waste blog. The next step, he says, is to create a network directory to help small-scale manufacturers manage their orders.

Find out more on the Fuel From Waste blog and YouTube channel.

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