Students Turn Coffee Grounds Into Firewood Substitute for Refugees

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A group of students at Toronto University are using leftover coffee grounds to create something that can be potentially useful for people living in refugee camps in sub-saharan Africa.

The substance is called Moto, and it is a potential substitute for firewood. By mixing dried coffee grounds, sugar, and paraffin wax, and then baking the mixture like a loaf of bread, the students have created a brick-shaped object that can burn for up to 90 minutes.

A U.N. survey indicates that up to 90% of refugees in several African countries rely on firewood to cook and boil water. However, the women and children in charge of collecting the firewood often have to leave the camp to find a sufficient amount, which can put them at risk.

“As soon as they’re out of the camp, they’re unsafe and that leaves them open to assault,” explains MBA student Sam Bennett. “[Moto] prevents the dangers associated with that, but also frees women up to spend time doing other things, whether that’s trying to find another source of revenue or spending time educating their kids.”

The students who created Moto are getting leftover coffee grounds from local businesses like Starbucks and Tim Horton’s. Using the substance they’ve created, the students have been able to boil water, in addition to cooking polenta and lentils.

Bennett and his partners are entering Moto in a worldwide competition for students called the Hult Prize, which awards $1 million to the winner to help launch a project that will have a positive impact on the world.

The next phase of the competition is in March, but win or lose, the group has high hopes for Moto. “It’s become something more than just a competition,” says Gowtham Ramachandran. “We want to make this thing work.”

The students hope to get feedback from African refugees now living in Toronto so that eventually refugees are capable of producing Moto on their own inside camps.

“We’re thinking of creating basically micro-entrepreneurs, who would produce the logs and then distribute them throughout the camp,” explains Bennett. “When you free up a quarter of someone’s day, the potentials are pretty boundless.”