When alcohol becomes clean energy; an innovation from a young startup
Alcohol is often mentioned for the wrong reasons. But one young business in Ghana wants to show the world that alcohol can be in the news for good reasons. This startup has innovated a means to turn alcohol made from sugarcane to clean fuel that emit oxygen rather than the usual carbon dioxide. Read more as Prince shares his story with the B&FT’s Inspiring Startups on how it all began.
Prince Nana Kow Essel is a native of the Central Region of Ghana. He is a product of the Mfantsipim School in Cape Coast where he studied science with technical. He proceeded to the University of Mines and Technology and graduated with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering.
Prince’s exploits in innovation began as far back as his days in the junior high school when he and one of his friends used to play with chemicals. His friend’s father was a chemist and so he brought some of the chemicals and the duo would try to mix them up and see how they react.
In one of those experiments, they mixed some chemicals up and immediately saw it foaming. With excitement, Prince took it home and tried to explore more. He further added a chemical that his mother bought for killing ants and other insects to see the reaction. The moment the chemical was brought near fire, it lit up and this fascinated him a lot. Right from that time, he thought about how he could use it as a form of energy. But as young as he was, it could only remain a fantasy at the time.
Then, he moved to the senior high school. In the library, one day, a book on energy caught his attention and he took it to read. He was amazed to find that in Brazil, ethanol (alcohol) could actually be used as fuel for cars. He teamed up with some colleagues in the school’s science club to see how they can develop a similar product.
This caught one of their teacher’s attention and he told them about an opportunity to contest in a competition in South Africa among senior high school innovators. They, however, couldn’t make it through the application but this didn’t discourage them from continuing their project.
When they completed senior high school, Prince didn’t allow the project they started to die. He, together with one of his former colleagues, decided to switch from using the alcohol to produce fuel for cars to fuel for cooking.
Alcohol in the kitchen
When the decision was made to use ethanol as energy for cooking, Prince decided to pilot it in rural areas. After trying and experimenting with it, he realised the alcohol was too volatile, hence, making it risky for use. Again, since alcohol is a spirit, it could easily dry up when exposed to the environment. Further research was done and it birthed the formulation of a gel and which, when added to the alcohol, made it semi-liquid. When it was tested, the alcohol no longer dried up when exposed to air; and also became less volatile, making it safe for use.
The ethanol gel is also environment-friendly as rather emit oxygen and not carbon dioxide into the air. It is also made from a by-product of sugarcane called molasses. This molasses is obtained from local alcohol distillers who use sugarcane as raw materials. So using a by-product of the alcohol puts the molasses into good use, thereby, avoiding waste. The ethanol gel also comes with its special stoves.
The vision is big for Econexus Ventures Ltd. They plan to spread their products across Ghana and enter other African markets to become one of the leading names in providing clean energy.
Again, it plans to open retail centres in the major cities of the country so that their products can be easily accessed.
One of the challenges the young business face has to do with difficulty in preparation of the gel. It can be best prepared if the company had its own laboratory. But a lack of laboratory means they have to rely on an agent who imports some of the raw materials from abroad.
The other challenge is financial. As usual, clean energy projects need a lot of money to implement successfully. So Prince has opened his doors to investors who are interested to partner him.
The role education has played
For Prince, education is what gave him his business. Remember, it was way back in junior high school when he and his friend started exploring chemicals. And when he went to the senior high school, it was in the library he got his business idea from. So for him, if he had not had that exposure, he wouldn’t be here.
The impact of GCIC programme
Through the Ghana Climate and Innovation Centre (GCIC), Prince was taken through a refresher course that educated him on how to refine his marketing and sales skills and strategies. The GCIC also awarded the company US$12,000 to purchase one of the main machines it needs for production. The GCIC also sponsored him to go for a clean energy conference in Kenya to learn from other players of the industry across the continent.
How government should support startups
Government, Prince says, should devise a flexible model in its National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programme (NEIP) which offer tailor-made financial assistance to startups at their early stages. He feels it shouldn’t all be about applying to enter a competition and advancing to the last level before you are given loan to pump into your business.
Advise to young entrepreneurs
“As young entrepreneurs, we should just be true and faithful to whatever we set our minds to do. When we do that, success will be inevitable. We just have to keep at it and the doors will open eventually.