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Valuable Waste: Green Charcoal Production in Uganda

Updated: May 11, 2021

Geoffrey recalls that when he was a child, the forests around Tororo stretched until his home and that it would be normal to see baboons from his house. Today most of the forest has been cut down, and plain fields characterize the nature around the city. Charcoal production is one of the main contributors to forest degradation in East Africa. There are 850,000 households in urban Uganda that each consume one ton of charcoal annually, resulting in approximately 75 million trees being cut down to support these households. The traditional method of charcoal production requires a constant supply of firewood and is very inefficient as most of the wood’s energy content is lost in the process. However, as charcoal burns with minimal smoke, it remains the preferred cooking method, and the large production continues. Experimenting with new ways to produce charcoal based on agricultural waste, Geoffrey started his own charcoal production under the name 'Green Charcoal Uganda'. His organization has grown into a promising response to climate change by offering an alternative to commercial charcoal. It is built on circular economy principles and a strong social drive to empower the surrounding community.

// Green Charcoal briquettes

Production: Turning waste into value

Green Charcoal converts rice husks, palm kernel husks, and other agricultural waste into charcoal briquettes. These briquettes serve as an alternative for regular charcoal and firewood. The agricultural waste firstly needs to be carbonized. Carbonization is the conversion of organic matter into carbon utilizing high heat and a low level of oxygen. The traditional method achieves this by covering burning wood with grass and mud. Green Charcoal has co-designed carbonizers that are made of only two metal barrels at a cost of $40. These ovens are four times more efficient in utilizing the raw materials energy content than the traditional method of carbonization. After the material has been carbonized, it meets Green Charcoal’s production line. Molasses is used as a binder before the briquettes are pressed into their oval shape. In the end, a solar drier is used to dry the briquettes before they can be packaged and sold to consumers, restaurants, and factories in the area. Green charcoal is not only more environmentally friendly but also outcompetes the current market price of commercial charcoal.

Empowering and engaging local communities

To source the agricultural waste and carbonized material, Green Charcoal works closely with farmers around their area. Farmer groups of 10 are provided with a burner, enabling them to carbonize their waste products themselves and sell that carbon to Green Charcoal. In total, the organization is collaborating with around 300 farmers. As small-scale farmers rarely have the initial capital to purchase the burners, the organization finances them first. After six months, a fee of $2.77 is deducted from each delivery until the carbonizer is paid off. As local women are mostly relegated to running the household, Green Charcoal seeks to empower the female population. By prioritizing partnerships with women, they provide avenues for generating additional income by producing the raw materials for making charcoal. They also offer training for the groups in areas such as group leadership, and conflict mediation to assist the local collaboration efforts. Green Charcoal wants to equip their farmers with the tools to manufacture their own charcoal in the future. Often only urban areas benefit from charcoal production, as they can afford to buy the product. However, Geoffrey believes it is essential that the community can keep a share of what they produce.

// Carbonizers on Green Charcoal’s factory ground

The entrepreneurial journey

Geoffrey holds a degree in construction and also emphasizes his interest in biology. Naturally, these qualifications help him on his entrepreneurial journey of starting an innovative charcoal production facility. Throughout the process, Geoffrey had to adapt his concept incorporating local solutions. Experimenting with the choice and mixture of locally available inputs, Geoffrey has managed to put his company ahead of its competition. Green Charcoal continually finds their way around the problems they face. “Sometimes, the best solution is the one right next to you,” Geoffrey tells us while showing us around his facility. For example, when he noticed that he could only afford part of the machinery to separate palm kernels from their skin, he introduced a mix of mud and water to separate them by hand. Green Charcoal is now at a point where the availability of funds restricts their growth significantly.

// Geoffrey stands proudly in front of his charcoal production

After running the business for three years, Geoffrey was one of eight selected among 250 applicants admitted to an accelerator program by ECOSTAR - an essential milestone for the enterprise. Geoffrey values the tools he learnt in the accelerator greatly, such as business planning, creating value propositions, and learning how to enter markets. With the attention that came with the final pitch, Geoffrey even managed to gain funds. These investments were the missing cornerstone for building a substantial part of his production line. Apart from learning business skills and gaining essential funding, the accelerator program provided Geoffrey with the opportunity to meet other briquette manufacturers, through which he learned a lot. An engagement with the local university of Makere in Kampala has also benefited him, as he utilizes their laboratories for evolving and testing the briquettes.

Despite successfully developing an innovative solution to a pressing problem, Geoffrey struggles to grow his organization. One of Green Charcoals' main challenges is finding funds to scale their production. Government funds are hard to attain, and international funds are highly competitive. Geoffrey tells us about multiple competitions in which he invested time and money. For the final meters of winning many of these competitions, luck can be decisive for succeeding. One time, his internet connection failed when he was in one of the final rounds during which an enterprise with a similar business model won. To support the financial sustainability of his business, Geoffrey is looking for other revenue streams and trying to make the most of the raw materials at hand. Recently, the company started to produce palm oil from the leftover palm kernel. The plan is to start a production of local and environmentally friendly made soaps in the near future.

Local innovators like Geoffrey are essential for adapting to climate change. Research reveals that less than 10% of climate finance is reaching the local level. It appears that grant givers prefer ideas designed in European laboratories with little understanding of the needs of the communities where they will be applied. The example of Green Charcoal shows that solutions to maintaining forests and empowering communities already exist. What is missing is the thoughtful and efficient allocation of funds and resources to scale locally-anchored solutions.

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