Kampala aims to lead African cities in fight against climate change

KAMPALA, Uganda — Watson Owamumpiine excitedly scoops up a handful of smelly cow dung in his hands. “This is the best raw material for briquettes,” he says.

Owamumpiine is the program coordinator of a local NGO here focused on changing the fuel people use for cooking. More than 90 percent of households in Uganda cook with wood charcoal made from trees. So do many restaurants, schools and other places that serve prepared foods.

Owamumpiine’s group, known as the Canaan Pioneering Innovations Development Agency, or CAPIDA, wants to replace that wood charcoal with fuel made from organic waste, food scraps and other materials. These round briquettes are much cheaper and cleaner-burning than charcoal. They also prevent deforestation, which contributes to the problem of global climate change. “We thought that if we can make briquettes from old waste, human waste, animal waste, we can save our trees,” Owamumpiine says. “In Africa, we are facing a lot of challenges through deforestation.”

Owamumpiine is a student at Kampala’s Makerere University, and is beginning his quest on campus. CAPIDA has trained 80 youth to make briquettes at its workshop here at the university and another location elsewhere in Uganda. On the grass outside the workshop, there is scattered manure, as well as stacks of finished briquettes drying in the sun. Some of these are used to cook steamed banana leaves for the students and lecturers.

The low-carbon briquettes are just one component of an ambitious strategy by the local government here to combat climate change. It’s spearheaded by the Kampala Capital City Authority, or KCCA. The Authority gave Owamumpiine’s group seed capital to get started and is funding other programs that train youth and women in making briquettes.

Other parts of Kampala’s five-year Climate Change Action “roadmap” aim to reduce traffic and improve air quality in a city that has 2 million people and is growing fast. Local leaders presented their plan at the global climate talks in Paris last December — a final draft is still under development and expected to be finished soon.

Jennifer Musisi, KCCA’s executive director, is not only aiming to make a positive impact on the global climate change problem. She’s also positioning Kampala as a model for other cities in Uganda and much of Africa to see what climate solutions in a developing-world context can look like. Last month, Kampala hosted local leaders from cities in East, Central and Southern Africa for a development forum that focused heavily on climate solutions.

“We’re working as hard as we can to make sure that we begin implementing long-term sustainable mitigation measures in these various areas,” Musisi says. “There’s no alternative.”

Feeling the impact

Public awareness and concern over climate change in this part of the world has not reached the same height as in Europe, for example. Yet of all continents, Africa stands to see the harshest impacts, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the area around Kampala, the weather has been drier and hotter than normal — some districts in northern Uganda recently recorded their hottest temperatures ever.

“Climate change has affected our agriculture quite a lot, in terms of changing the climate patterns, the rainfall patterns,” Musisi tells Citiscope. “When it rains we have a very high volume of surface runoff, and it goes into the low-lying areas where a lot of these low-income communities live. It affects their livelihoods, destroying their property and their crops.”

Musisi, who was appointed to her post by Uganda’s president, is trying to convince the citizens and business owners of Kampala that climate change is not just an environmental issue but also one of development. “Climate change impacts on everything else,” she says. “The health of the people. Agriculture. The quality of the air that we breathe. So many things. It does have a real impact on the lives of people and productivity.”

Kampala’s goal is to reduce the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 22 percent over a business-as-usual scenario. Some of the strategies in Kampala’s climate plan would sound familiar in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. For example, Kampala is looking at creating a traffic-free corridor for pedestrians and bicyclists. The controversial plan would not only ban cars but also the ubiquitous motorbike taxis known here as “boda bodas.”

[Read: In Kampala, an Uber for motorcycle taxis puts safety first]

Other strategies include installing solar-powered street lights. Nearly 400 of these are already in place, and the KCCA has issued a tender for 750 more. Under the plan, all new roads are to be lit with solar-powered lights. There’s a long way to go — the city estimates some 40,000 units will be needed over the next five to ten years — but it’s a start.

A lot of Kampala’s climate initiatives have to do with cooking. In addition to the briquettes Owamumpiine and others are making, KCCA has installed a biogas digester at one of the public schools. The system turns human, animal and food wastes into methane gas for cooking and cuts in half the amount of energy used in producing meals. The French development agency known as Expertise France also funded higher-efficiency cook stoves in 10 schools.

In addition, vendors at the city’s market have been supplied with “eco-stoves” equipped with volcanic rocks. When the stoves are lit with a small amount of charcoal, they produce heat which can be used continuously to cook.

Setting priorities

Musisi admits the plan’s biggest challenge is financing. These projects are expensive. The biogas digester, for example, cost US$30,000 to implement. The telecom company MTN is paying to convert five more schools but there are more than 70 schools to go. The solar street lights aren’t cheap either. KCCA has spent US$900,000 on them so far, and the current tender is to be funded from within the authority’s budget.

Musisi says KCCA has in place good systems for financial accountability and management, but that it’s not sufficient to fund both climate mitigation and the needs of a growing city.  “Our revenue has grown,” she says, “but it’s still not enough.”

[Read: In Paris for climate talks, city leaders look to strike deals of their own]

To use scarce resources wisely, KCCA teamed with the World Bank and the University of Washington to develop a “climate-smart” capital investment plan. All capital projects are analyzed based on criteria such as how much they contribute to saving energy and reducing emissions. Proposed projects are then ranked by staff on how well they satisfy the criteria over the life cycle of the project.

KCCA also is looking at how it can change procurement policies to support the climate goals. For example, it may require computers purchased for the use of public employees to meet certain energy-efficiency requirements. The same could be true for construction of public buildings. While local officials are somewhat limited by national laws in what they can do in this area, KCCA climate change project manager Edison Masereka says the Authority has some wiggle room it can exercise “while still remaining within the law.”

Musisi says the authority is working with other government departments and the private sector on key aspects of its plan. “We’ve looked at our vision and how it affects other stakeholders across the spectrum,” she says. “Because we know we cannot do it alone.”

Scaling up solutions

While the climate challenge may be big and complex, the briquette solution on display at CAPIDA’s workshop at Makerere University seems downright simple.

The briquettes are cheap and easy to make from a variety of materials including cow dung and animal urine, poultry litter, slashed grass, fecal sludge including a combination of animal and human waste, and food scraps like corncobs.

To make a briquette, organic waste is gathered and dried before going into a kiln, which turns it into a carbon-like substance. Another machine crushes it into fragments that are then mixed with clay and molasses and molded into a round shape. The briquettes dry under a plastic tent for up to five days, but not before a machine punches holes into them to allow in oxygen when customers finally burn them.

The briquettes are popular with restaurants, hotels, households and poultry farmers, says Owamumpiine. Masereka says the city administration is looking at a comprehensive program to support groups like CAPIDA to scale up supply and link them to more markets.

On this day, the briquettes don’t have to go far. Near CAPIDA’s workshop, cook Sarah Nabule hoists a large saucepan atop a stove burning a briquette. She stirs peeled bananas, on their way to being made into matooke, a starchy staple of the Ugandan diet served with groundnut sauce, meat or vegetables in banana leaves. “They’re cheap to use, time-saving and energy-saving,” Nabule says of the briquettes.

Owamumpiine couldn’t agree more. Briquettes “don’t produce smoke, don’t produce ash,” he says. “They’re completely environmentally friendly as opposed to charcoal, where you cut down a lot of trees and and that rampant cutting down of trees is harmful.”

Amy Fallon is freelance journalist based in Kampala who works regularly for AFP and Inter Press Service.

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at citiscope. org

Photo via Shack Dwellers International.

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