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An energy change in Kenya

Eni is trying to develop biofuels that could transform the Kenyan energy industry and serve as a model for other African countries in the future.

by Rachel Elbaum Stafler
14 min read
by Rachel Elbaum Stafler
14 min read

Located on the East coast of Africa, Kenya is one of the most advanced countries in Africa when it comes to its climate change commitments. It is a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change and intends to reduce its emissions 32% by 2030, while also creating “a globally competitive and prosperous country with a high quality of life," according to its Vision 2030 plan.

The development of green energy will help achieve both of these goals. In December 2020, the country's president Uhuru Kenyatta met with Eni’s CEO Claudio Descalzi to discuss how the company could help Kenya reach its environmental commitments, provide local communities with efficient and sustainable access to energy resources, while also reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, which Kenya imports.

Eni has been present in Kenya since 2013, and just as importantly, has been a leader in converting traditional refineries in biorefineries which convert biomass to energy in Italy. What's more, Kenya's efforts fit well with Eni's own commitments to decarbonisation. The company has committed to the full decarbonisation of all its products and processes by 2050. Biorefineries play a large role in this commitment and Eni plans to increase its capacity fivefold by 2050.

After the December meeting, Eni got to work, developing a plan to leverage its expertise and technology. The project, now in its initial stages, would include:

  • the development of Kenya's agriculture sector to supply the biorefinery
  • the collection and refining of used cooking oil
  • the conversion of a Mombasa refinery into a biorefinery producing renewable diesel and SAF (sustainable aviation fuel)
  • the development of a bioethanol plant
  • the advancement of international partnerships and financing.

“This project, which will take around five years to develop, has been an exemplar of a public-private partnership," said Eni Kenya's Managing Director Enrico Tavolini. “From the outset, the government has worked with us side by side to achieve our goals".

Tavolini explained how the government appointed teams to work with Eni counterparts on every aspect of the project, and Eni representatives in Kenya have regular meetings with ministers in the Department of Agriculture and Oil and Gas.

For Eni, the project is ground-breaking in other ways as well. The company's projects usually involve only one of the company's divisions. The Kenya project, however, involves: exploration, refining and marketing, and chemicals as well as sustainability and public affairs.

"This project is a win-win for Kenya and Eni in terms of business development and also the development of sustainable goals, job opportunities, GDP growth, the reduction of emissions, and more," said Angelo Mongioj, Business Development Manager in Green and Traditional Refining and Marketing.

First steps: Working with farmers

Eni’s looking at the possibility of converting the biorefinery in Mombasa in order to produce renewable diesel and SAF, and the agriculture work group’s task is to evaluate both the potential feedstock for the biorefinery, and the sustainability of the raw materials.

“The transition to low carbon fuel has to be just, and that means that the feedstock for the refinery will not compete with the country's food chain, especially given that Kenya ranks 84th out of 170 developing countries in terms of its food security," said Federico Grati, lead of the Agricultural Development in Kenya.

The team is performing an assessment of Kenya's agricultural sector, together with the Ministry of Agriculture. It will jointly identify target areas, or regions, where crops can be established. It is focusing on cover crops, to be cultivated in rotation seasonally with cereals, like kale. The team also intends to explore the development of drought-tolerant crops like castor in areas that are less suitable for food production, giving farmers there an additional source of revenue.

Around 70% of Kenya's population of 54 million is dedicated to farming. However, farmers often lack access to markets and agriculture skills, and even the seeds themselves, are often less advanced. Eni plans to work together with farmers to enable them to grow their crops more effectively as well as looking at how it can build a network of hubs to collect and process the feedstock.

“This project is a model that will be beneficial to local communities and to the energy industry over the long-term," said Grati.

The goal is to start using Kenyan crops production in 2022, years before the biorefinery in Kenya would be ready. With that in mind, Eni is looking at how this oil can supply its two biorefineries in Italy first, giving the farmers access to the market, and crucial revenue, even faster.

“We are starting in a gradual way. It will allow us to fine-tune the model, and once it is effective, we will be ready to replicate it in other areas of the country," said Grati.

Converting a traditional refinery into a biorefinery

The centrepiece of the Kenya project is the conversion of a refinery in Mombasa into a biorefinery.

Eni was the first company in the world to convert a fossil fuel refinery into a biofuel refinery in Venice in2014. The company then converted a second refinery in Gela, Sicily in 2019. These two projects gave Eni the technology, know-how and experience to convert and run another property.

The initial plan is for the Mombasa biorefinery to produce 250,000 tonnes of biofuels a year — both renewable diesel and SAF — from vegetable oil and used cooking oil. The conversion is based on a proprietary technology developed by Eni in cooperation with UOP Honeywell, a leading international supplier and technology licensor.

Mombasa's strategic location on the coast means the biorefinery is ideally placed to eventually  supply other countries with the refined products. What's more, the conversion of an existing refinery, compared to building a new biorefinery from the ground up, will significantly reduce the amount of time it would take to begin operating and cut the cost as well.

“Running a biorefinery requires a significantly different approach and expertise than running a traditional fossil fuel refinery, skills we have because of our existing biorefineries in Italy," said Andrea Amoroso, Head of Downstream and Petrochemical Studies at Eni. “For example, careful handling is essential throughout the process, including transportation and storage, to avoid degradation of the oil and corrosion."

Eni's goal is to use as much of the existing infrastructure at the refinery as possible, including the utilities and facilities for loading and unloading. The conversion of the factory is expected to take around three years and it would eventually employ around 400 people.

“This will be the first plant in Africa that will be able to produce biofuels and it's a big step for Kenya. We are a leader in innovation and over the past 10 years, we have learned from experience both how to best design a biorefinery, as well as how to operate it," said Amoroso.

This is a wonderful example of a circular economy project that takes waste and converts it into a clean energy product

Giuseppe Perrone, Head of the UCO project

Transforming used cooking oil into fuel

Used cooking oil plays a major role in Kenya's mission to develop its circular economy. Eni currently makes use of approximately 50% of the used cooking oil available in Italy in its biorefinery and this would be its first international used cooking oil project.

The company first needed to find out how much used cooking oil was available to refine in Kenya.  Schools, hotels and restaurants could potentially supply  used cooking oil to the biorefinery and Eni and its partners in the government need to work out how it could be collected and delivered. The initial plan focuses on developing collection hubs where the oil would be delivered from Kenya's five largest cities as well as four coastal areas that are centres of the country's tourism trade.

“This is a wonderful example of a circular economy project that takes waste and converts it into a clean energy product," said Giuseppe Perrone, Head of the UCO project. “It also demonstrates that an industrial project can also have a social impact."

Bioethanol: Clean fuel for transport and cooking

In addition to the biorefinery, Eni is looking at the feasibility of developing a second-generation (2G) bioethanol plant. The plant would take agricultural waste and convert it into bioethanol that can be blended into gasoline to improve the performance and quality of fuel.

Kenya currently imports 1.5 to 2 million tonnes of gasoline each year, and the production of bioethanol locally would contribute to the decarbonisation of the transport sector. After supplying the local market, Eni would also look at exporting the bioethanol to international markets, including Europe.

Eni is also looking at other ways bioethanol can be used, including as a clean fuel for domestic cooking, instead of coal or other less environmentally friendly options.

Working closely with the government, the company is currently looking into potential locations for the plant in western Kenya, where it would be able to take advantage of the agricultural waste from local sugar mills. The goal would be to eventually develop up to three bioethanol plants in Kenya, producing 50 kilotonnes of bioethanol a year.

“The 2G generation bioethanol process could valorize biomass residues already available in the Country, by creating a new value chain for agro-industrial activities not in competition with food. This is a new sector, and we are in a particularly good position to drive its development with our proprietary Proesa technology," said Rita Calento, Business Development Manager at Versalis, Eni's chemical subsidiary.

Bringing in international development partners

One of the key components necessary for Kenya's energy transition are partnerships and backing from international institutions like the Italian CDP,, the European Investment Bank, IFC World Bank and the African Development Bank. Eni's goal is to develop this new project according to the highest international standards.

Development finance institutions could potentially support the project in three ways:

  • Financing and loans to support Eni's construction of the biorefinery and bioethanol plants, as well as the extraction of oil from seeds and feedstock.
  • Agricultural development - Eni would facilitate contact between cooperation agencies and Kenyan farmers, but not be directly involved with international institutions providing funding or loans.
  • Policy dialogue - Eni would help facilitate dialogue between these institutions and the Kenyan Government so they can advance the development of the country's regulatory environment.

Although the project is at an early stage, Eni has already started speaking with development funding institutions to involve them as the project develops.

“The energy transition has started from a climate of necessity, but we know there are social implications attached," said Francesca Ciardiello, Eni's Institutional Business Development Support Manager. “We want to involve financial institutions that share the same just transition mandate so they can help us make resources available for this transformation."

Support from international institutions like the European Investment Bank would also serve as proof that Eni is working in line with the bank's mandate to advance decarbonisation in Europe and abroad.

With this project, it is possible to see real, concrete evidence of a new path to energy transformation and to all it involves

Maurizio Maugeri, Executive Project Director Kenya Programme

Enhancing Kenya’s energy transition

In addition to development finance, the project also needs a strong public affairs and awareness strategy so it is clear to Kenyans who will benefit and why.

“Our goal is to learn what we and the government must do to support Kenya's energy transition in a way that just, inclusive and as beneficial as possible to the people involved," said Ciardiello.

Eni team is focusing now on learning more about the needs of:

  • Farmers and agribusiness, designing a specific entrepreneurial school
  • The general public so Eni can foster a cultural change especially in terms of waste management
  • The government and local institutions in Kenya helping to define a new regulatory system

“A project like this will have implications in terms of new opportunities and a change in culture. We are in effect starting a new industry in Kenya and that requires a strong public affairs strategy," said Ciardiello.

The future is a sustainable development

For Eni, this project represents more than an opportunity to help Kenya reach its climate targets. If successful, it would be a model Eni could develop in other countries. The multi-layered project in Kenya also represents Eni's future as it transitions into green energy.

“With this project, it is possible to see real, concrete evidence of a new path to energy transformation and to all it involves," said Maurizio Maugeri, Executive Project Director Kenya Programme

“Until now, the two businesses —green and traditional— have been run in parallel. I believe that Eni’s future will be the integration of these two streams to guarantee a new model capable to ensure decarbonized products and value added services leveraging on global social responsibility".

The author: Rachel Elbaum Stafler

A London-based freelance journalist who covers renewable energy and sustainability.