In the summer of 2012, Luke Heneghan was a rising senior at the University of Notre Dame and went to Zambia to work with Zambikes, an organization that manufactures, assembles, and distributes bicycles and bicycle accessories throughout Zambia, for his International Development Studies (IDS) field experience. What started as a project to study the role of manager-employee and company-employee relationships in employee motivation became an obsession with Zambian energy and the desire to find a more efficient and sustainable fuel source for the Zambian people. Luke put together his business plan for ZAMalasha and with the help of Fellow Irish Social Hub (FISH), ZAMalasha is now producing sustainably-harvested lumpwood charcoal using efficient torrefaction technology, and employing local men and women. Luke is another great example of how the Notre Dame experience and DNA are creating social entrepreneurs that are changing the world.
How did you come up with the idea for ZAMalasha?
The idea for Green Energy Africa and the ZAMalasha product really started two years ago when I was interning with a local Zambian company called Zambikes. One of the founders of Zambikes, Vaughn, and I began talking about the opportunity in Zambian energy. We began looking into the local charcoal industry and found it to be very eye-opening in terms of the enormous size and informal and unregulated manner in which it runs. The more we looked into it, we saw massive amounts of unused biomass waste that, if tapped into and treated the right way, could be a solution that could make a great positive impact both socially and environmentally in Zambia.
What are your biggest challenges?
I believe our biggest challenge has been dealing with this torrefaction technology and how to apply it to theZambian environment. It is a relatively new technology and totally new to Zambia. It has been difficult to decide upon the most cost-effective way to bring this technology to Zambia. That being said, we have made enormous strides in the past few months with both our own machine being built in Zambia and a new American partner in Agri-Tech Producers. They are experts in this technology, and have recently chosen us as their Zambian partners to get their machines onto the African continent.
Have you had to compromise the social value of your project to succeed in the market?
We really feel that we have not had to compromise the social value of this project since we have started. We have employed 12 Zambians steadily for the past year, working on the fabrication of the machine as well as in smaller scale briquette production. That being said, we don’t think we are even close to the full potential of our impact in Zambia. We need to succeed with full scale production of torrefied briquettes to really start making the impact we know we can. The economic viability of our product will certainly be the driving force behind all the social impact we have as a company. But this entire time, we are creating a local Zambian product for the Zambian people at an affordable price, that also has positive environmental impact.
How will you measure success and know you have succeeded?
We will be measuring success in different but equally important ways. In terms of environmental impact and success, we can specifically measure the amount of industrial coal or local charcoal we are displacing with every ton of our product sold. By using input product that is otherwise burned for disposal, we are preventing 1.5-2 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere with every ton of our biocoal sold. We are a for-profit company, so our economic impact will be measured in terms of amount of tons we can sell, estimated at around $250 USD per ton. For our company, the most important measure of success will be the number of people we can provide with quality reliable jobs, in a country that is absolutely devastated by poverty and unemployment.
What is your favorite story or memory about starting ZAMalasha?
My favorite story about starting ZAMalasha is our very first failure. Our first attempts to make biomass briquettes 2 summers ago ended in a sloppy mess. With little research and less experience, we tried using a clay brick briquette machine and pressing grassy waste from the Zambikes farm. We mixed grassy straw waste with water and watched them fall apart right out of the press. We have come a long way since, with the torrefaction technology and more appropriate presses, but that was definitely a funny start to it all.
Are you part of the Notre Dame family and doing great things, big or small, to improve the world? Join our “What’s Your #IrishImpact?” campaign and tell us about it! And join us for the 2nd Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference on October 2-4.