Charcoal Briquettes: A New Technology to Fight Poverty

Pius Sawa Murefu

Kampala, Uganda - Aug 2007

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It is unimaginable to think simple round balls made out of local materials could earn someone sixty two thousand dollars ($62,000.00) a month, especially in a country where 35% of its population live on a dollar a day.

A major fuel in urban and rural dwellings, the use of charcoal is widespread in Uganda and other parts of Africa, and it is also one of the main sources of income for the rural population living near forests. However, its use is a contributor to deforestation and environmental degradation/ climate change; due to these undesirable effects governments in Uganda and other African countries are deterring people from using the fuel.

Charcoal Briquettes

A sack of charcoal in Uganda costs approximately 25,000 shillings, about $17. A family exclusively using charcoal requires two sacks every thirty days. This means an outlay of $34 dollars a month on charcoal alone. Experience has shown that there are certain trees whose charcoal are longer lasting, therefore a household is at a disadvantage of spending more if it buys lower quality charcoal.

A litre of kerosene costs a dollar in Uganda. Using kerosene stoves for cooking is quite expensive and not very environmentally friendly; costs are even higher for those using gas or electricity.

It seems a new technology is here to rid people of the exorbitant costs of fuel for cooking. Charcoal briquettes are little known in Uganda but were introduced last year by a small rural organization called Sessa, in Lweza about thirty kilometres outside Kampala. Three balls are enough to cook for five hours at a cost of only two hundred shillings; this is equivalent to $0.125. Five hours is just enough time for a medium sized family to cook breakfast, lunch and supper. For the poor majority who live on only a dollar a day the cost is a great relief on expenditure.

The technology has the potential to become a major source of income for people/ families who adopt the skills to manufacture the briquettes and also for those who supply the raw materials. However, the process is laborious and time consuming, at Sessa five people can only manage to make two hundred briquettes in a day. In a week they produce one sack which can be sold for 100,000 shillings (i.e. $62).

The existing manufacturing process has been a limitation to meeting demand however, efforts are being made through an environmental organization ‘Living Earth’ to adapt the manufacturing process by introducing new machines so as to increase productivity and meet the high demand. One of the improved machines uses electricity while the other uses diesel.

The electrical machine is estimated to cost ten million shillings, approximately $6,250 while the diesel machine costs around half that price. Either machine is expected to produce one thousand sacks of charcoal briquettes in a month. Sold at $62/ sack, approximate income per month would be $62,000.00.

This simple technology is being seen as a means to reduce poverty levels and create jobs. The necessary materials such as banana skins, saw dust etc are readily available anywhere in the country. The use of briquettes could also lead to the widespread use of improved energy saving stoves made from clay.

It is evident that if machines can be supplied throughout Africa every house hold whether in a rural or urban area will save a lot of money that would otherwise be used to buy charcoal, kerosene, gas or electricity. It is good news that the production process is simple as many households should be able to make some of their own briquettes instead of buying all of them.