About a year ago we started a very small research project which involved making a sustainable and commercially viable alternative to charcoal. Why? What’s wrong with charcoal?? Simple fact is that it is non-renewable and one of the greatest contributors to deforestation in Kenya and many other countries in Africa. BUT People need something to cook their meals on and people also need to make a living. In Kenya, charcoal is big business:

Charcoal depots

Charcoal depots. Photo courtesy of Elias Kimaru, WWF

There are 200,000 charcoal producers operating in Kenya, and around half a million people (producers, transporters and vendors) involved directly in the charcoal trade (almost half of these on a full time-basis) who support around 2.5 million dependents.

The amount of charcoal produced each year in Kenya is 1.6 million tones. The annual income from charcoal is around Kshs. 32 billion (USD 400 million) almost equivalent to the income generated from Kenya‰Ûªs tea industry. It’s taken us a while to come up with a viable alternative to charcoal that burns well and can be made from readily available materials. In our case, sawdust (a by-product from the timber yards in Ukunda is inexhaustible), mango leaves (plenty of those in Muhaka!) and waste paper (I don’t think this will be sustainable in the long term if we ever get to producing tonnes of briquettes weekly but paper is a very good binding agent and we are still trying other alternatives such as jatropha seedcake).

mango leaves, saw dust, charcoal dust, paper

mango leaves, saw dust, charcoal dust, paper

We have blogged about how to make briquettes before so for those of you knew to the process, click HERE. Equally if not more important is access to a market – i.e. people have to be willing to buy the briquettes instead of charcoal. That is always the hardest part. To convince members of the Muhaka community that there was indeed a market, we agreed to purchase anything they can produce for use across all our camps in Kenya. Generally all our cooking is done on gas but we have started to use the briquettes to boil things like beans. It is by no means as efficient as gas which takes no more than ten minutes to boil 3 lts of water whereas our briquettes take 22 minutes currently to boil the same amount of water. Charcoal takes about 15 minutes so we are not too far off. Our objective is not to find an alternative to gas (which most Kenyans will not have access to in any case) but an alternative to charcoal. Making tea at the officetesting organic charcoal To date we have trained about 20 people, 5 of which went to a specific course with the assistance of the local WWF office. Once we got to a stage where they were not too smoky and were burning quite well, we gave some samples to a few hotels in Diani some of which I am pleased to say have committed to using our briquettes instead of charcoal. Nomads for instance, has already placed an order of up to 4 sacks a week! However, it is critical that the quality of the briquette is consistent and yes, we are still struggling with that. There is nothing new about briquettes (just google the word and see what happens) and they are certainly not difficult to make – but it is important that we find the right organic materials which are readily available if this is going to work – and that might take some time. We do have a lot of enthusiastic and hard working volunteers and willingness from some of the local youth who are definitely pushing this along a lot quicker right now. We are recording all sorts of facts like how many briquettes can two people make it one day, how long do they take to dry, how long does a briquette made from 50% sawdust and 50% mango leaves take to light, how long does it burns for (more photos of briquette pressing and testing HERE) Preparing organic charcoalPressing briquettes And yes, yes, I am using them at home too for our barbecues! Briquette barbecue