Global Entrepreneurship Week at UNC-Chapel Hill got off to a rousing start with Monday night’s “How Entrepreneurship can Change the World” event.
November 18, 2015
From Chapel Hill to Kenya: UNC Student Saves Lives With GreenChar
UNC student who runs GreenChar, maker of sustainable charcoal & energy-related products in Africa, headlines Global Entrepreneurship Week in Chapel Hill.
The night began with an opening address from UNC’s Judith Cone, followed by the week’s first keynote address, from Defy Ventures founder Catherine Hoke. Through her work with Defy Ventures in New York City, Hoke—a venture capitalist turned entrepreneur—runs entrepreneurship, professional skills and personal development programs for individuals with criminal histories. After recounting her personal history, Hoke went on to share her goal of “inspiring action”, urging the audience to pursue their true passions and set one actionable goal to get closer to achieving their dreams.
After her address, Hoke sat on a panel discussion moderated by Cone alongside Redwoods Group CEO Kevin Trapani and UNC student entrepreneur Yina Sun.
As the lone student speaker on Monday night, Sun was a focal point on the panel, speaking at length about her experiences as the CEO of GreenChar, a company working to establish affordable and clean energy sources in Kenya.
Sun opened by explaining the problem: 40 percent of the world’s population—including more than a billion people living in Africa—use firewood or charcoal to cook.. The problem? Wood and charcoal creates a dangerous fire hazard in rural environments and creates a major health hazard through continued exposure to smoke. Sun drove the point home by sharing a statistic that cooking with firewood and charcoal causes 4.3 million deaths per year, more than that of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Sun originally traveled to Kenya after her freshman year of college as part of an internship with the nonprofit Global Minimum’s Nairobi-based Innovate Kenya. It was on that trip when she became involved with GreenChar, an organization run by two peers involved in the same program.
When they first pitched the idea, Sun said she was skeptical. Kenya was an unfamiliar country, and charcoal was certainly not of major interest for a promising student on the pre-med track.
“I asked to see the problem,” Sun said. “Once I saw it, I realized the scope of the problem.”
That realization eventually prompted Sun’s decision to take a year off from her studies at UNC and join the founding team, taking over chief operating officer duties for the emerging enterprise. Though she continues to serve in that role, she came back to school this fall and will graduate form UNC in 2018.
GreenChar’s primary product is what Sun described as “green charcoal,” a smokeless briquet made from agricultural sugarcane waste, an abundant resource in rural Kenya that is 35 percent cheaper than traditional charcoal.
Sun explained that the organization has begun selling its products in six additional cities and towns throughout Kenya in the last six months. Most recently, GreenChar has started selling charcoal in Kibera—what she describes as the world’s largest “urban slum’ just outside the sprawling capital city of Nairobi.
After the panel discussion, Sun shared with me the challenges of balancing a demanding UNC course-load and an international social venture, the long-term vision for GreenChar and her personal wiring as an entrepreneur.
On the short-term vision for GreenChar…
“In the next year, it’s to expand the product throughout East Africa. We have some partners who have reached out from (…) lots of different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. So in the next year we’re going to mostly be working on expansion, in tandem with looking at alternative products.”
On the longer-term vision for the organization and its potential impact…
“The end goal is not for every rural Kenyan to be using an alternative to charcoal. The end goal is for them to use gas or something that everyone else is able to use.
“It’s to transition them with this (green charcoal). The first step is this alternative to charcoal and then the next step is to transition them into LPG or something else.”
“We’re looking into producing new products as well. We’ve piloted cook stoves, and we’re looking into making a gel that my tech team has been talking about. The next two to three years is all about looking into those goals.”
On the task of running a Kenya-based company while handling a UNC courseload…
“It’s been hard for me this year.”
“When we started, we were in Kenya, so all our mentors and partners are over there. It has been tough to tap into this network (at UNC and around the Triangle), especially because my work is across an ocean.”
“It’s been a little hard to find resources, but I’m excited about finding some more resources here and bringing some more resources here.”
On her personal goals and plans…
“I take it one step at a time and one day at a time. I used to be someone who would really plan out my life. Like when I was eight, I probably could tell you what I would be doing at 20. Now I just don’t do that anymore. I really don’t have a great answer.”
For a first-person account on the establishment and growth of GreenChar, see Sun’s blog post from October 2014 on The Huffington Post.