The dusty drive from Nairobi city centre to the gated warehouse complex where I was heading is lined with cows crossing at will that cause even the bravest of Matatu (local buses) drivers to stop in their tracks, pumping out a cloud of thick diesel-lined smoke into the air. Whilst these emissions are obvious and visible, the Kenyan government has an ambitious plan to turn the lesser-seen but more widely reported emission, carbon dioxide, into the country's next big export.
As we pull up, we’re greeted by 5m high double-fronted iron gates, behind which I can only imagine lies a local distribution centre or a warehouse rave. The gates creek open to reveal a large, split-level but rather empty space, the type that any London or New York-based 20-something year old, would pay through the nose for on rent, only to fill the space with some MDF, plywood, and the occasional Monstera deliciosa.
Its obvious size dictates plans for growth but right now, only a few bits of machinery scatter the warehouse floor. “That’s Thursday, Africa’s first and only, direct air capture prototype” explained Martin Freimuller, pointing to the simple unit that looks as if it had fallen to earth as shuttle debris. Martin is the co-founder and CEO of Octavia Carbon, a Nairobi-based direct air capture (DAC) company with ambitions to make Kenya the global hub for the manufacturing and deployment of direct air carbon capture machines. There is a lot of interest in Octavia, who in my time there, are visited by multiple journalists and a documentary crew who are all keen to hear about Wangari 1, Octavia’s pilot plant aiming to be operational by 2024 with the capacity to capture 1000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
The Octavia Carbon team at their workshop in Nairobi. Their prototype machine, Thursday, can be seen on the mezzanine level.
DAC in Kenya
DAC, an engineered negative emission technology that removes carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere via chemical reactions, is emerging as an approach with significant potential to reverse climate change. It is in its infant stages, despite its infancy, with only 18 plants worldwide cumulatively capturing roughly 10,000 tonnes per year (the equivalent yearly emissions from 2200 cars) all situated largely heavily in the US, UK and Europe, where permitting and energy grid mix provides a significant barrier to scale. However, if DAC is going to have its intended impact and justify the serious amount of needed capital, it will need to remove a minimum of 1 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050 to help limit the world to under 2c of warming. The scaling rates required to meet these goals is unprecedented but this is a challenge that Kenya seems intent on taking on.
So why are things heating up in Kenya? Pardon the pun, but this is not in reference to the rising temperatures across the country that instigated the worst drought in 40 years, this much is true and bleak. But no, the answer is more optimistic and lies within another source of heat.
Traveling across the plains of the Great Rift Valley, you’ll see plumes of steam shoot skywards, leaving the earth's surface like a breaching whale. The country is not only blessed with some of the greatest landscapes and wildlife on planet Earth but is also home to vast reserves of the second most abundant renewable energy on earth, geothermal energy.
Shifting tectonic plates release heat from the earth’s core that travels through fissures close to the earth's surface where it interacts with water to produce steam. Tapping this currently produces 48% (863 megawatts) of the country’s power, contributing to an impressive 92% renewable grid (ambitions to make this 100% by 2030 are already underway). A further 10,000 megawatts of geothermal energy remain proven but dormant, providing enough power to supply Kenya’s peak energy demand five times over. An absolute heat gold mine.
Despite this, energy access in Kenya is low with roughly 30% of the population living without electricity while the prices of electricity for those that do, remain high.
Why? The answer lies in the non-virtuous cycle of energy demand economics. Put simply, when there is low demand from households and businesses, consumers end up paying a premium to counterbalance the surplus energy produced, with recent news circulating that new regulation could see price spikes of up to 78%. Without sufficient demand, utility providers and energy project developers won’t absorb the risk of building out new energy infrastructure.
Enter direct air capture. Given the thermodynamic challenges posed by capturing and concentrating molecules that exist at 419 parts per million in the atmosphere, DAC is often criticized for its high energy intensity with estimations placing energy demand at 2-3MW/h per ton of CO2 captured constituting a large percentage of the cost of carbon removal via DAC. It is precisely this insatiable hunger for (renewable) energy and yes, it needs to be renewable energy in order to maximise climate benefit, that both draws DAC’s greatest critics and makes Kenya an incredibly exciting location. By providing a use-case for the excess renewable energy produced (currently, capacity outstrips demands by about 30%) and in the longer term, providing a persistent demand that helps to de-risk new energy infrastructure, DAC can simultaneously drive prices down and increase energy access across the country. Permanent carbon removal unlocking energy poverty in a virtuous cycle of climate action and sustainable development.
If you’re still not convinced, allow me to play my ace. Geothermal plants provide significant amounts of waste heat energy, which is (surprise, surprise) wasted. Whilst development is still in its infancy, Duncan Kairuki, Product Lead at Octavia Carbon smirks discreetly as he tells me that the waste heat from geothermal “could account for 85-90% of the energy consumption” of their machine. The use of waste heat provides the perfect entry point to demonstrate DACs viability in Kenya.
However, capturing carbon is only half of the story. For carbon to be removed from the atmosphere it needs to be safely, durably, and permanently locked away to compensate for the time that CO2 would have otherwise remained in the atmosphere, contributing to the warming effect. Carbon mineralisation, turning captured carbon into stone by injecting it underground into volcanic rocks such as basalt, is the gold standard for permanent and verifiable carbon removal
Cella is emerging as one of the early movers in this space, split between Columbia University in New York City and Nairobi, co-founders Dr. Claire Nelson and Corey Pattison have chosen Kenya as their focus. “We're incredibly excited to be working in Kenya for our first demonstration pilot. Beyond the unique geological features of the Rift Valley and its enormous geothermal potential, we chose Kenya because of great local partners, strong government support, and a deep pool of talented engineers that create ideal conditions to move at the pace and scale to meet the urgency of the climate crisis,” says Co-Founder and CEO Corey Pattison. Work is already underway at Cella on Kenya's first mineralization pilot, and the company plans to be in a position to host DAC partners by mid-2024. Early supporters of Cella's project include Shopify and Stripe, which,-through the Frontier fund, have pre-purchased the first engineered carbon removal credits from anywhere in Africa.
Cella CEO Corey Pattison holding a community engagement session in the plains of the Great Rift Valley, Kenya.
Let’s be clear: direct air capture technologies are rapidly growing in popularity, but carbon mineralization has not received the same focus. Yet durable storage options are a key enabling platform for DAC companies like Octavia, providing a foundational and perhaps the first piece of the carbon removal puzzle that needs to be in place before DAC can meaningfully contribute to Kenya’s high bar for carbon removal.
Individually, both Corey and Martin speak to me of the talented engineers oozing out of Kenya and after spending a few days in Octavia Carbon’s workshop, I see this with my own eyes. Duncan turned 24 recently and is one of the oldest engineers in the 13-person team at Octavia, Young, talented Kenyans taking their futures into their own hands, approaching their work with the seriousness that the challenge ahead commands, yet a distinct optimism that they might be at the beginning of an industry that could drive Kenya’s advancement into the green age of the new carbon economy.
For me, this is powerful stuff – a fine example of how we can flip the tiresome, redundant, and overwhelmingly Western narrative that centres Africans as helpless victims of climate change, into one that elevates them as climate vanguards of their own and their countries' future.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.