Charcoal

We at re:char are starting a new line of business in Bungoma, Kenya: charcoal production.

Charcoal is one of the most popular and demanded sources of fuel in urban Sub-Saharan Africa. Specific to East Africa, the FAO reported in 1987 that 26% of Nairobi’s dwellers use charcoal as their primary source of energy. The report also noted that consumption increased 192% over 10 years beginning in 1975. If that trend continued, it can be expected that many more Nairobi residents consume charcoal now. The World Bank produced this short and informative video about charcoal business in Dar Es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, our neighbor to the south.

Although much smaller than the cities of Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, there is also a large demand for charcoal in Bungoma. Most of the restaurants, usually referred to here as “hotels”, go through at least one large grain sack of charcoal in a week. Most street-side dukas (general shops) also sell charcoal, and every day I see and hear men selling charcoal from the back of their bicycles.

At the beginning of this post, your knee-jerk reaction to our decision to begin charcoal production was probably a negative one. Isn’t charcoal production that wicked process that causes massive deforestation all over the world? Indeed it is. In traditional charcoal production, trees are cut down into pieces, assembled in a pit, lit on fire and then covered with dirt to smolder until charcoal is ready. There are several problems with the process. First, the work is rarely performed with good agroforestry practices in mind. Usually, a tree is bought and/or felled, used, and then the producers move on to the next site. Second, the process is highly inefficient and polluting. It usually takes days/weeks for the charcoal to be produced, the process is heavily smoky, and if it is produced in an open area and it rains – as it does on a near daily-basis here during rainy season – the process is spoiled. According to The World Future Council (via a BBC article), 4 million hectares of forest are felled each year in Africa, which is twice the world average. The UN estimates that most of that is due to charcoal production.

Photo courtesy of FAO

We at re:char will not follow the traditional charcoal production model. We will use our highly efficient and clean kilns to produce charcoal from biological waste materials, such as shrubs, and sugarcane and maize stover. As many readers of this blog know, we already perform this process to create biochar, which is then added to soil to improve crop yields by increasing water and nutrient retention. For us, the difference between biochar production and fuel charcoal production is the need to compress and bind the biochar into charcoal briquettes. Once the biochar is mixed with a starchy binder and then compressed by the low-cost (<$2) hand presses we have developed, we have a nearly ready charcoal briquette. The final step is to dry the briquette in the sun for a few days.

Over the course of the last two weeks, we have searched the internet for literature on charcoal briquettes, asked local mamas and charcoal users for information, and run our own experiments on different briquette designs. We have produced combinations of different binders, feedstock and starters. We are now testing each design for duration and temperature of burn – the characteristics that we have been told by users are most important, behind price. Once we finish our research in the next few days, we will publish our results to this blog.

 

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