Blog of Lorin Symington

Building in Burkina Faso with Remar

Posted Thursday 27 February 2020 by Lorin Symington.

We launched a new project with Remar International in Burkina Faso to empower women entrepreneurs. As always we fabricated the solar units locally, in cooperation with local metalworkers. Our chief builder Lorin was in Burkina for 2 months to facilitate the first phase of this project.

I first visited West Africa in 2007 when I spent 6 months in Mali. During my research at the time, Burkina Faso jumped out at me as a place that was in desperate need of Lytefire technology. And now, finally I get to bring our solar concentrators to Burkina Faso!

Lorin and the Remar apprentices measuring and marking.

The country of people of integrity
That’s what Burkina Faso the means and it was named like that by President Thomas Sankara, in 1984, in his courageous attempt to free the country from French colonialism. It is a landlocked country of 20 million people, devoid of any petroleum wealth and with few other resources. Burkina Faso is ranked 182nd out of 189 on the Human Development Index, which is to say that it is one of the least developed countries on the planet. There’s a 9 months long dry season and an incredible amount of dust. It is “winter” now, but the temperature hits nearly 40°C every day and during my first month I didn’t see a cloud. If ever there was a country that could profit from direct access to solar energy, it’s this one.

People in the capital city Ouagadougou (pronounced wah-gah-doo-goo) are friendly and often dressed in brightly coloured traditional fabrics. There are bananas and avocados for sale on the side of the road, and strangely enough, many apples, strawberries and grapes, the origins of which are still a mystery to me. The country is an ex French colony, and one of the many ways that the colonial legacy lives on is in the daily consumption of bread.

GoSol has been contracted to build a Lytefire 5 baking oven for Remar International, a Spanish NGO that has been working in Burkina Faso for over 20 years. They’re planning a bakery training centre at their compound in the Nioko 2 neighbourhood and their intention is to empower a group of women to earn a more consistent living.

Bako, head welder at the Remar garage, learning to calibrate mirrors.

Remar, our new partner
Working with the Remar workshop crew is fun and challenging. On the one hand, Bako, their main welder who they have supported since he was a boy, is well experienced and a real stand up guy. It’s great to see the structure Remar has put in place to provide a safe learning and growth experience for these youngsters. His spirit is one of Hakuna Matata, to borrow a phrase from our Swahili sisters and brothers. He’s always smiling and eager to learn. On the other hand, he has a handful of apprentices who are… a handful. One is nicknamed the ‘minister of losing stuff’, another is the minister of breaking stuff, another is the minister of confusion… you get the idea! No build is complete without a few tools burning out and some unexpected delays, but with a little luck and perseverance we’re making it work and in the end everything went just fine.

The team, proud to see it all starting to come together.

I’ve never had a more challenging time finding the materials to build Lytefire than in Burkina. For the first three days we heard ‘impossible’ many times when it came to finding sheets of stainless steel. I now know two shops that sell them. Likewise for fiberglass or mineral wool insulation, though eventually we managed to find the one place that sells it. I estimate that it took me 12+ hours of hunting to find fiberglass mat (which we use to protect and hold in place the window on the oven). 2 or 3 mm mirrors were simply impossible to find and we were eventually forced to get those mirrors from neighbouring Ghana where, it turns out, they are cheaper than just about anywhere else I have ever bought them. I bought enough for 5 Lytefires because I have a good feeling about the future of Lytefire in Burkina Faso.

On the hunt in the Ouaga Steel Market.

The Lytefire is now installed at Remar’s training center for women so stay tuned for the next updates from this project. On a side note, Lorin met some very interesting entrepreneurs while he was in Burkina Faso and we are starting a small crowdfunder for them to equipt and train them with Lytefire. Please have a look here: https://lytefire.com/adama-and-issaka?var_mode=recalcul


Solar Entrepreneurship: GoSol’s SOL5s maximise profits
for cashew nuts producers

Posted Tuesday 20 August 2019 by Lorin Symington.

The Best Agri Products Processing Cooperative (Bappco) is a busy hive of activity. Six days a week the men and (mostly) women of Bappco are hard at work processing cashews. The amount of attention that they pay to each individual cashew is really impressive. If you’ve ever wondered why cashews are so expensive, read on and discover the steps involved and how our SOL5 is enabling this cooperative to maximise their profits.

Above, one of our SOL5 trainees, Gina Munleon, long time member of Bappco, adjusts the focal point during our training session. Previously, Bappco depended on tabletop ‘turbo roasters’ powered by electricity. On more than one occasion while I was in their space there were extended blackouts, effectively bottlenecking their production.

In addition to the roaster, our local partner CarbonCycle wanted us to develop a a new application to remove the toxic liquid contained within the shell of the coconut (for more information on that, see the previous blog post). This will help to streamline their production flow and it means that they don’t have to depend as much on outside service providers.

Read on for an overview of the processing performed by the lovely ladies of Bappco.

Sacks of cashew nuts are dropped off and are dumped out to be sorted. Misshapen, mouldy or off-colour nuts are sorted out and discarded. Then the nuts are spread out in the sun for pre-drying.

Next, they are either shipped to another community for fire-frying to extract the cashew nuts shell liquid (CNSL) or they are cracked directly, in which case the ladies must coat their hands and arms in vegetable oil to avoid irritation due to the acidic and toxic nature of the liquid. For cracking/splitting, Bappco has several table mounted nut splitters. Once the nuts are cracked, the kernel is extracted and either peeled or not peeled depending on the desired final product.

Next, the cashews are dried in a big electric drier. Up to 100kg of cashews are dried for 3 hours and then are ready for roasting. Until recently, Bappco would use a tabletop ‘Turbo Roaster’, a 1200w convection roasting chamber. The Turbo roaster can ‘white roast’ 2kg in about 20 minutes and needs to be stirred every 2-3 minutes to ensure even roasting. For lightly browned ‘toasted’ cashews, the process takes 35 minutes for 2 kilos. Our SOL5 toasts twice as fast and can roast beans without using the pre-drier, enabling Bappco to overcome electricity costs!

Next is sifting and sorting, where whole cashews, half cashews and bits and pieces are separated, then weighed and packaged. Each cashew is individually handled 4 times, and are handled in bulk an additional 4 times.

With our technologies in the production line, Bappco can now supply more cashews to their local markets and is making significant savings on electricity. Again, with the help of our local partner CarbonCycle and the University of the Southern Philippines (USTP) we’ll be gathering data and establishing just how much benefit these eco entrepreneurs are having on the environment as well as their bottom line.


Solar charcoal, cashew nuts process and new evolutions

Posted Monday 20 May 2019 by Lorin Symington.

Prototyping: beautiful (sometimes frustrating) and creative (sometimes repetitive trial and error iteration) prototyping! Building innovative new solutions to problems presented to us by our partner and their stakeholders on the ground.

We’re in a very interesting phase here on the outskirts of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, Philippines. We’ve built two hybrid oven/roasters, very similar to those we’ve deployed in Kenya, though with a few notable improvements to stability and durability around the light window and the door.

We’re currently developing two new applications for making charcoal and removing Cashew Nut Shell Liquid (CNSL). Below, a series of pictures showing various rough prototypes, stakeholder context and some fun around the workshop. Enjoy.

Coconuts:

Tropical paradise that it is, The Philippines has an abundance of coconuts. The hard shell of the coconut is on par with many hardwoods in terms of energy density and it is often converted into charcoal by burning it in an oxygen deprived environment (pyrolysis).

Above, an ‘improved’ steel drum charcoal kiln. Improved is a relative term… this is more efficient than building a great big fire and then dousing it with water or smothering it with dirt or sand, as is done in many places around the world. How would you like a smoky charcoal business in your neighbourhood? My initial calculations indicate 6kg of coconut shell makes 1kg of coconut shell charcoal, which is in line with UN averages for cottage industry charcoal making.

Some of the team during the second test of our coconut charcoal maker, after we tested it without insulation to get a baseline. This application is particularly exciting for me because this is a way to displace a huge amount of dirty emissions and increase the earning potential for coconut farmers. No longer will they burn up most of their coconut shells to get bit of charcoal. This application might triple the income from coconut shell byproducts for small farmers.

A very successful test run. 90% of the coconut shells were converted to charcoal, with only the shells at the bottom of the drum remaining uncarbonized. We’ll solve that by diverting the flammable gas that emerges from the chimney to the bottom of the drum.

A surprisingly sharp dividing line between converted and unconverted charcoal.

Cashews:

The Philippines is one of the major cashew producers in the world, especially considering the size of the country. If you’ve ever wondered why cashews are so expensive it is because they are a very weird nut whose processing must be very careful. The cashew nut grows on the bottom of the fruit of the cashew tree. Inside the shell, between the outer shell and the edible kernel on the inside is a dense spongy pith, filled with a remarkable cashew nut shell liquid (CNSL). The liquid is highly acidic, flammable and quite toxic!

It is a raw material of multiple uses in developing drugs, antioxidants, fungicides, and biomaterials. It is used in tropical folk medicine and for antitermite treatment of timber. CNSL may be used as a resin for carbon composite products and as petrochemical substitute, etc. Wikipedia
As such, CNSL has a value on par with refined petroleum products, making it a potentially interesting source of income.

Traditional cottage industry processing involves heating the cashew nuts in a perforated pan on an open flame. Once they are sufficiently heated, they burst, and the CNSL spews forth and everything catches fire. They’re removed from the fire, dumped on the ground and doused with collected rainwater.

Cashew processing is a family affair. Once the cashews are cooled, the women crack them open and extract the kernel. The shells and the fluid are all the fuel the fire needs to burn and smoke like crazy all day long. The smoke is acrid and heavy and wafts across the neighbourhood, to the detriment of the health of all involved.

First prototype… steel mesh on square tube - aka what happens when you stick the nuts in the focal point? They burst! There’s no fire. There’s less smoke. However, you need to stand in the sun constantly waving this contraption. Also, the focal point is so hot that the CNSL on side facing the sun bursts out, but on the sides the liquid remains (think about how much solar energy you get at sunset versus noon).

It might not be ideal for CNSL removal but it makes a great fish frier!

How to get even roasting? Build a steel mesh drum, put it in a box with a window and fire away! However, the bursting of the liquid from the shell coats the glass, which is not sustainable.

We’ve made a few more prototypes and we’re zeroing in on a good design… a design where we’ll replace young Jerson here with a solar panel and a motor.

The new faces you see are some of the students from the University of Technology of Southern Philippines (USTP) who are doing their summer internship with us, some of whom will continue on to quantify certain aspects of GoSol’s solar tech and assist with data collection and validation of results reported by CarbonCycle and the end users.

Initial tests on the rooftop of the library on USTP’s Cagayan de Oro campus.

The great news is that the ladies and gentlemen from the cashew cooperative we’re dealing with say that the nuts are of a high quality, that the liquid doesn’t get forced deeper into the nut and contaminate the kernel, which often happens with the open fire frying method, meaning they must sell those nuts at a discount. They’re excited to receive training on the SOL5 and integrate it to their production.

Stay tuned, because that’s the next phase of the project!


Partner spotlight: CarbonCycle Processing Inc.

Posted Wednesday 8 May 2019 by Lorin Symington.

Writing to you from the Philippines, we’re entering the most exciting phase of this collaboration. The construction of 4 Sol5 units is complete, and now we’re testing, prototyping and training end users with the new applications we’ve built. I thought this would be a good time to share more about our partner in this endeavour: Dr. Dale Llentic, founder of CarbonCycle Processing Inc.

Dale is the eldest of 2 siblings and a family man with three adorable young children and a lovely wife. He studied at a state university and graduated as a doctor of veterinary medicine, working in the industry at various private and public institutions until he had a wake-up call and decided to start a business devoted to environmental sustainability and empowering farmers.

He witnessed the lack of sustainable practices among farmers in the countryside of the Philippines, not only in his home region of Siargao but across many regions and sectors and was motivated to do something about it and came up with the idea of CarbonCycle: “CarbonCycle will be a sustainability provider for farmers and the Agrofood industry to utilize everything with the use of renewable energy to produce food, fuel, fiber, chemicals and add value to agricultural products. The importance is given to save as much carbon as possible without emitting it to the environment in the form of CO2.” The Philippines are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change since it is an island nation, exposed to typhoons on a regular basis.

Using renewable energy to process waste into valuable products, it is possible to greatly increase income for small scale producers as well as industrial customers. Coconut shells, cashew nuts and pineapple pulp are just a few of the opportunities for enhanced sustainability, food security, more dignified work and pollution reduction all across the Philippines.

Dale started CarbonCycle in 2014 with the intention to improve recycling in the Philippines, which is the third largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution in the world. Realizing that renewable energy would have a transformative impact on the industry, he incorporated plans to include solar thermal energy into his business and quickly gained momentum. His business plan was ambitious but would clearly have important impact on people and profits. He was one of 5 winners of the the BPI Sinag Awards for social entrepreneurs in 2018, winning PHP500,000 ( 8600€)

“Winning the social entrepreneurship award was a highlight in my life, it gave me a boost in pushing for a more sustainable business concepts that are inclusive. This award became the spark for making this project with GoSol happen.” … “In striving for carbon awareness, business will be more sustainable because recycling will be more into organic and less into fossil products. I plan to build a concentrated solar thermal pyrolysis plant that can produce oil, carbon (sic:charcoal) and electricity.”

From a BPI Sinag article about CarbonCycle: "Dale had invited some classmates to join the company. Three of them were engineers: a civil engineer, an electrical engineer and an electronics engineer. One other classmate invited to join was an accounting graduate, while a fifth classmate was in marketing. “My engineer classmates are the ones who are keen on researching, looking for opportunities and converting the opportunities into viable products,” said Dale."

The agrifood industry is receiving a lot of attention from investors in the Philippines and through CarbonCycle’s inclusive and sustainable approach to doing business, Dale has been able to attract investors and partners who will be invaluable in catalyzing exponential growth to improve incomes for many small farmers while at the same time reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. One of these partnerships is with the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines (USTP), with whom GoSol and CarbonCycle have signed a tripartite agreement to collect data based on the usage of the Sol5 units CarbonCycle will be implementing, as well as for the development of more advanced industrial solutions for pyrolysis of plastic and agriwaste.

Above, Dale Llentic, founder of CarbonCycle, on a fact finding mission with a coconut shell charcoal producer.

We’re excited to be working with such a dedicated partner, whose values mirror closely our own, and I’m very much looking forward to presenting the results of this collaboration which is showcasing even more custom tailored solutions that will improve incomes and quality of life for small scale farmers while reducing their contributions to climate change and making them more resilient to the challenges ahead.


"You have the energy right over your head, so you have to utilize it"

Posted Friday 5 April 2019 by Lorin Symington.

This is an interview with Derrick, one of the youth mentors at the Gulu SmartUp Factory, Uganda. In the video, he discusses why entrepreneurs need to be dynamic, the health and economics of polluting heat sources like charcoal or wood and some hopes for the future.

The students here in Gulu have little real world experience running a business and it is exciting to see how they are approaching the business that resulted from our solar entrepreneurship education package.

(Sorry, this time the sound quality is not so good)


USTP’s Innovation Summit 2019 in the Philippines

Posted Tuesday 2 April 2019 by Lorin Symington.

Last week I was honoured to be invited as a speaker to the 2nd Innovation Summit 2019 hosted by The University of Science and Technology of the Southern Philippines (USTP) who’s now our partner. The two day event was filled with sessions from industry, government and academe. I spoke on the subject of Solar Thermal Energy for Agrofood Processing in the Face of Climate Change.

A few highlights from the event were the ‘fireside chat’ with Diosdado P. Banatao, a prominent Filipino businessman now based in Silicone Valley and Chairman of PhilDev, a session by Avril de Torres from the Centre for Ecology, Energy and Development, the signing ceremony for the Memorandum of Agreement between GoSol, CarbonCycle and USTP, and the pitching competition where USTP students competed to give their tech startups a head start in the business world.

The Philippines as a country recognises that they are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and the city of Cagayan de Oro as well as USTP are positioning themselves to innovate solutions to the challenge. The economy of the Philippines is also weighted towards food processing, so there was quite a lot of interest in my talk, as I presented how solar thermal can help companies improve their bottom line and get in front of government policies regarding emissions and energy use.

I met a number of student innovators who were presenting their final projects, many of them in mechanical food processing and I exchanged contact info with a few of them because we’ll need passionate young engineers and scientists in the coming years. A shout out to the teams responsible for the coconut weaver, spray dehydrator, rice husk powered dehydrator, floating river hydro pump and these guys, demonstrating that the answer to the age old question ‘how many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?’ is, in fact, two. :P

It’s always a pleasure to meet and learn from other people involved in the fight against climate change, as well as thought leaders in any field. I’m grateful to USTP for the experience and am looking forward to our collaboration.


"I want to be one of the youths who are job creators"

Posted Thursday 21 March 2019 by Lorin Symington.

Meet Angella, one of the young women at SmartUp Factory Tororo who participated in our solar entrepreneurship education training. Angella was one of the most enthusiastic bakers in the group, always with a big smile on her face.

She participated regularly in the roundtable discussions about how to organize the solar baking business that would emerge as a result of this training. Youth unemployment in Uganda is around 80% and Angella and the others are keen to earn an income.

Introducing Angella:


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