(August 2007) Stacked next to the ubiquitous piles of green bananas in Uganda’s markets are equally ubiquitous 5-foot-tall sacks of charcoal, a major reason why this country’s forests are rapidly disappearing. Charcoal and fuel wood are the energy sources for the vast majority of a population that is increasing so rapidly the forests can’t possibly keep up.

In Namatala slum in the small town of Mbale in eastern Uganda, this unhealthy combination of deforestation and booming population was inflicting hardship on a group of displaced women. They could no longer find charcoal, and when they could, they couldn’t afford it. They came to Judith Apilo and Shem Ewichu of the Uganda Gender Rights Foundation (UGRF), an organization focused on improving the lives of women in poverty.

Ewichu had been in a family charcoal business for 12 years and understood the women’s plight. When a Rotary Club gave the foundation a book on using waste materials to make briquettes, the gender rights foundation initiated a project to create an alternative source of cooking fuel, and at the same time empower the women to rise out of poverty.

“Here in Africa, there are so many problems for women,” says Apilo, the foundation’s executive director. “Men can walk out and leave them with the children without charcoal, without food. Briquette-making gives them a way to make some money and also cook for the family.”

UGRF received a $35,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation to purchase five locally produced, briquette-making presses, to pay for training Mbale residents how to use them, and to lease a production site. In March, the U.S.-based Legacy Foundation, a leader in fuel technology, trained 60 women in fuel briquette production.


Uganda Facts

Population, 2007
28.5 million
Projected population, 2050
117 million
Fertility rate (average number of children per woman)
6.7
Life expectancy at birth
47 years
Population density per square kilometer
118
World population density per square kilometer
49

Increasing Population Searching for Scarcer Firewood

The fledgling project is trying to make a dent in a very big problem. According to the UN Population Fund, Uganda’s population is predicted to double by 2025 and available wood will reduce by a third per person. According to the Uganda National Forestry Authority, 97 percent of the population uses charcoal and firewood for cooking.

The UN agency cited statistics that firewood collectors—mainly women and children—must travel increasingly long distances to collect an increasingly diminished resource. These longer journeys can be unsafe. And according to the country’s National Environment Management Authority, firewood scarcity means that some households are using foods that are easier to cook but potentially less nutritious.

“The briquettes are not a solution to the environment alone,” Ewichu says, “but it helps.”

How Fuel Briquettes Are Made

Fuel briquette technology is being used in other places in Africa, but Mbale is the only place in Uganda where waste materials are being turned into briquettes that can be burned in place of firewood and charcoal. In Mbale, three presses work at a time, with five or more women—and sometimes men—on each. The donut-shaped briquettes are made of discarded coffee hulls, rice husks, charcoal particles, sawdust, wood chips, and waste paper. The paper serves as a binder for the other materials.

The women first haul the materials from their source, on their heads or on bicycles. Rice husks can be had for free from rice mills, charcoal from hotels or other institutions, wood chips from furniture makers.

The materials are torn by hand, cut with a thresher, or pounded into smaller pieces using a big mortar and pestle, then mixed with water and put into a PVC pipe with holes in it. The press squeezes the water out of the raw material and through the holes, leaving behind a 4-inch round briquette with a hole in the center. The briquette is dried on a wooden rack. The process takes one to two weeks, and the women can produce 350 to 400 briquettes a day per press.

Since the training, UGRF has “graduated” 20 women, and provided them two presses for their own use. UGRF funds half the cost of the presses, and the women are required to pay back the other half when they generate a profit. So far, says Sylvia Lomokol, a leader of one group of women, they are using all the briquettes they produce, only selling a few when approached by neighbors. Any income goes back into the project, mainly to buy the critical waste paper, which can be difficult to find.

While UGRF and McKnight hope to turn the women into entrepreneurs, the women themselves are focused more on immediate needs as they work the presses, some of them with a baby on their backs.

“I have no expenditure for charcoal. The briquettes help with cooking, and are very cheap,” Margaret Nambafu of Namatala says. “I plan to sell them some day if I can get enough materials.”

From a Pilot Project to a Self-Sustaining Business

Turning the project into a business, however, will require overcoming financial obstacles, local suspicions and technological challenges. Ewichu estimates that in order to make a profit, a single press should be operated by only five women and produce 400 briquettes in a day. In part because the labor is so difficult, the women work the press for only three hours a day.

UGRF has experimented with prices, at first charging 75 Ugandan shillings per briquette, or just under a nickel, eventually dropping the price to 25 shillings to promote the product. Ewichu says the women should make a profit at 35 shillings per briquette, and the plan is that increased demand eventually will push the price up to 75 shillings.

The briquettes are cheaper than charcoal, a major selling point. A family of 10—not uncommon in Uganda—would use 15 to 20 briquettes a day. That would cost from 700 to 1,000 Ugandan shillings at 50 shillings per briquette, compared with 4,000 shillings a day for charcoal Ewichu said. While charcoal can be dowsed and then re-used, briquettes disintegrate with water, so cooks have to burn only what they will use for one meal; if they master that efficiency, the briquettes are still less expensive than the charcoal.

But Ugandans are suspicious that the briquettes will not work as well as charcoal, and they can’t afford to experiment with fuel. So Apilo and Ewichu take along a local stove—called a sigiri—to show how the briquettes burn when they demonstrate the product.

Tinkering With the Manufacturing Process

UGRF has been experimenting with the mix of materials used in the briquettes. “At first, they were smoking too much,” Ewichu says. In May, he and five representatives of UGRF went to Kenya with EcoVentures International, a nonprofit group also promoting the use of fuel briquettes, to compare experiences. They discovered that Kenyans were fermenting the materials—especially the paper—before pressing them. That solved the smoke problem.

The project has enough potential that Rotary International hopes to start a similar one in the Gaba area of Kampala this year. Paul Able of Blue Research, an Oregon marketing company working with Rotary, calls the briquettes “a technology transition” similar to what happened when people turned to charcoal from firewood. “This has a potential big market,” Abel says. “It is at an inflection point.”


Theresa Morrow is a freelance writer based in Uganda.


References

Legacy Foundation, www.legacyfound.org.

Eco-Ventures International, an organization supporting sustainable development, www.eco-ventures.org/briquetting.

Uganda National Environment Management Authority, National State of Environment Report, 2004-2005, accessed at www.nemaug.org/soe2005.php, on July 31, 2007.