Carbon Capture Plant in Kenya Seeks to Show Africa Holds Key to Checking Climate Change

Image courtesy of Octavia Carbon

Image courtesy of Octavia Carbon


The Great Rift Valley, 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, is world-renowned.


Even if you haven’t heard of it, you can probably picture the sprawling grasslands, canopies of umbrella thorn acacias, protrusions of basalt rock and a lion cub being lifted to see the land he will one day inherit. Disney’s “The Lion King” made this landscape famous. Now, the region is developing a new reputation as the site of the Global South’s first carbon dioxide removal facility. 


To keep the planet from warming more than two degrees Celsius, countries worldwide are looking for ways to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. A process called direct air capture has shown promise to take up less space than other carbon capture methods and minimize operational costs. As governments move to incentivize the industry’s innovation, private companies, primarily based in the Global North, stand to profit. But one company is trying to pull attention to what the Global South can do. 


“We are trying to show that climate tech can be done in Africa, by Africans,” said Diana Bonareri Maranga, business development lead at Octavia Carbon, a direct air capture company based in the Great Rift Valley. She and her colleague Specioser Mutheu, the marketing lead, spoke on a videoconference from their Nairobi headquarters.


They shared a photo of the prototype, which resembles a cage used for transporting velociraptors in “Jurassic Park.” The machine can pull 10 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually, slightly more than 12 Olympic sized swimming pools, or the average annual emissions of two people. The company plans to scale up to 100 machines and increase the efficiency so as to pull 2 million tons a year from the air It will then pump the gas deep into basaltic rock, which transforms and stores it in mineral form. 


One of the biggest concerns about direct air capture has been that the energy required to fuel the machines can release as much carbon as it removes. But by building the plant directly in the Great Rift Valley, 85% of its energy can be provided by the region’s geothermal sources, according to Octavia Carbon’s website. The steam heat of geysers is easily accessible in the Kenyan part of the Great Rift Valley, a geologic feature that runs 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) from Lebanon to Mozambique.


Mutheu wrote in an email that Octavia Carbon’s site will be located outside Hell’s Gate National Park and will cover several kilometers—similar to other geothermal plants in the area. The company expects to initially employ up to 100 people from Nairobi. After the facility becomes fully operational, only 15 employees will be needed on site. The company said it has received support from two local Indigenous chiefs. 


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that reaching net-zero emissions means about 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide will need to be removed from the atmosphere each year by 2050. This is the annual equivalent of 4 million Olympic swimming pools.


“That is just mind-boggling to me,” said Sara Nawaz, director of research at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy in Washington state, in an interview. She said that to meet global needs, the carbon capture industry could grow to exceed the size of the fossil fuel industry in terms of employment, investment, materials used and economic impacts. 


The nascent technology is attracting a lot of attention. There are now 27 direct air capture facilities in Europe, North America, Japan and the Middle East, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. The European Union’s Innovation Fund pledged more than 25 billion euros ($26.9 billion) and the U.S. Department of Energy announced $1.2 billion in funding for such projects in 2023 alone.


Kenyan innovation is not getting the same support. “Our financing pool here in Africa, for climate mitigation, is pretty narrow,” said Mutheu of Octavia Carbon. Local financing options and government incentives are negligible compared to those available in the Global North, she said. 


With a population of more than 57 million people, Kenya contributes less than one-tenth of a percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Still, the government intends to cut emissions by over a third by the end of the decade to help curb climate change  — which is already causing regional drought. The prolonged dry periods pose a threat to an economy dependent on pastoral agriculture and tourism. The government plan includes renewable energy projects, among other initiatives, but no money for negative emissions technologies. 


Octavia Carbon needs to raise $2 million to build the first seven machines. “We’ve been complementing our funding with revenue from the presale of our credits … that’s how we develop our tech and keep the lights on,” Mutheu said. Currently, removing one ton of carbon dioxide costs more than $1,000, but the company’s presale credits are priced at about $630 per ton. The goal is to figure out how to get costs down and be competitive in the carbon markets by 2030, Mutheu said.


Some Kenyans are concerned that Octavia Carbon’s foreign ownership means little of any future profits will stay in the country. Martin Freimüller, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, is an Austrian who holds an 80% stake in the business. Twenty percent of the shares are reserved for employees. 


“It is a reverse Robin Hood effect,” said Pietro Andreoni, the lead researcher of a study published in January in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, which received no external funding, modelled global carbon markets until the end of the century, based on current policies. The three researchers, Andreoni, Johannes Emmerling and Massimo Tavoni, projected that, with the single carbon market, private companies may see profit margins of more than 70%  — higher than in the tech industry. Meanwhile, taxpayers will pay the price through public funding, carbon taxes and a reduced space for funding a socially inclusive climate transition (one focused less on removal and more on reduction) while those who own the technology prosper. 


The researchers proposed altering carbon taxing to make it more equitable. For instance, taxing aviation more than gas stations, which would put less pressure on marginalized individuals whose fuel bills are a large percentage of their income. With more pressure, airlines might adapt to use biofuels and other alternatives. 


“There are a lot of other things wrong with [the] privately driven model,” said Nawaz at American University. She led a report published in February on policy, research and social movements surrounding carbon dioxide removal. The report recommended exploring public ownership models, and a global reparations fund to help remedy past harms from industrial development.  


Andreoni wrote in an email that he wouldn’t dismiss the potential for publicly owned removal efforts to be as concerning as privately owned ones. He wrote that in a future where carbon dioxide removal might be as big as defense spending, there is enormous risk of political provisions and it will ultimately be a societal cost, adding that the solution will have to look different for different countries and economies.


Despite criticisms about the carbon dioxide removal industry’s future equity, Nawaz and Andreoni both emphasized that the priority is to curb climate change, including funding direct air capture innovation. 


There is a mural behind the prototype in the photo that Mutheu and Maranga shared. It is a painting of Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan marathon runner who first broke the two-hour time barrier.  Across from his record marathon time is the global carbon capture market price goal of $100 per ton. For Muaranga and Mutheu, this project is an opportunity to be leaders in the burgeoning carbon capture and tech industry. To prove it is possible, is the first step. 

About the author(s)

Lauren Watson is a Canadian reporter and graduate student at Columbia Journalism School.