Sustainable charcoal: Is that possible?

Sustainable charcoal production

Members of the SLAFY and Eastern Timbers team

“For many persons the concept of charcoal and sustainability is a contradiction. However we have been able to develop a method to do just that” said Kurt Harris, SLAFY representative.

The St. Lucia Agricultural Forum for Youth (SLAFY) is a part of the Caribbean Agriculture Forum for Youth (CAFY). As a larger Caribbean initiative, CAFY was set up to encourage greater youth participation in agriculture. It’s meant to be the youth voice in the field for the region with chapters throughout the islands.

SLAFY as part of its mandate always seek to see how it can assist its members in developing and participating in agriculture, be it through agribusiness, training, policy making and consultancy.

The Eastern Timbers proposal, managed by SLAFY, was successful in gaining grant funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and is well on its way to establish full sustainability. Kurt tells us more:

Keron: So can you give me an overview of the Eastern Timbers project turned business?

Kurt: The primary input in charcoal is wood, namely lumber, a tree like any other that can grow and grow and grow again. We have been able to design a system whereby not only do we harvest trees in a sustainable manner but we also replant trees.

Whatever we use, we put back.

We also design our project around the used of proper forest management techniques. We practice thinning, which is selective pruning or reducing the number and thickness of the tree branches. this is our major input.

We also utilize loosened trees such as those hanging over electric lines or those to be removed for construction purposes. We do not promote the cutting done of enter slopes.

To make our charcoal we use a special designed kiln that uses a Retort method where the gases produced from the burning process are ignited causing the conversion from wood to charcoal to occur at a much more rapid rate.

The kiln also allows us to harvest other particles that normally would have been considered waste in other types of charcoal production such as dust and utilize it for another products which can be used as a soil additive. We have basically marketed it as ‘slash and burn in a bag’ This means that rather than enacting upon such a negative practice, farmers can simply use this product to improve the PH levels of their soil.

Currently we are at the stage where we seek to utilize the smoke that is exhausted from the kiln. Within this waste there are chemicals which can be used for industrial cleaners as well as wood preservatives. So we are attempting to turn one of the biggest nuisances of charcoal production into another product input.

We also got access to a mobile saw mill where we can convert larger trees into lumber for other traditional products. So we are striving for and have almost achieved a system where there is zero waste or negative environmental impact.

Keron: Very interesting. So the immediate direct product is the charcoal?

Kurt: Yes and more. We have lump charcoal, we have biochar, there’s mulch, lumber boards of different sizes and then activated charcoal but not of a medical grade.

sustainable lumber product

Eastern Timbers use a mobile saw mill to create lumber products from loosen trees.

Keron: What is activated charcoal?

Activated refers to smaller pieces of charcoal that are exposed to a much higher temperature. This allows the pores of the charcoal to open up much wider enabling it to absorb impurities a lot better. It can then be used as a slow cooker but also as part of a filtration process for grey water.

Grey water is the run off from a household’s water usage specifically in the kitchen and from laundry. Some persons use this water in their gardens.

However with our activated charcoal this grey water can be filtered improving its quality dramatically before being fed to garden plants. This then improves health of the plants and humans being the consumers of aforementioned, in the long run.

Keron: Now I know you are among SLAFY’s senior members and we spoke prior about members moving from young to recently young and beyond. In light of this the group has a particular business model that is meant to be sustainable, correct?

Kurt: Definitely. Eastern Timbers is the grouping of young persons of whom SLAFY has written the proposal, got funds for and is assisting in managing the business. As an NGO with no subventions or other income we have realized that we need to have a sustainability model. Therefore 5% of  profits coming out of Eastern Timbers provides goes to SLAFY who in turn assists another group of agriyouth with a different project. The idea is to repeat this process to increase the income pool of SLAFY and ensure the organisation is able to properly operate and to ensure continuity of SLAFY itself.

Keron: Tell me more about this kiln technology.

Kurt: Well we thought in order to garner the interest of the younger persons and to hold their attention we would need to research an up to date practice. The traditional kiln which involves building a structure over a pit is not sexy or attractive in any way. We were able to buy a patent for a kiln technology that a German researcher had developed. We then further modified the kiln in order to reduce the cost of maintenance of the kiln itself and suit the local environment. in doing so we have reduced the time to produce charcoal by 60% and increased production by 33%. We then shared this adaptations with the researcher as part of our agreement to utilize the technology. In doing so others are able to benefit.

Keron: Thanks much for the chat Kurt, i think the projects is quite innovative and going places!

Blogpost by: Keron Bascombe
Photos courtesy: Eastern Timbers.

4 thoughts on “Sustainable charcoal: Is that possible?

  1. Pingback: Sustainable charcoal: Is that possible? | Tech4agri

  2. I believe strongly that their objective is achievable as long as the source of raw material is sustainable and the relevant stakeholders are carried along and the technology is locally adapted. I am equally looking at the same issue in a state in Nigeria.

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  3. Do you know that you could use bamboos instead of trees? You would be cutting giant grasses, instead of trees! Bamboo charcoal tested in Ethiopia and Ghana produces little smoke, and is as good as wood charcoal.

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  4. This all sounds fascinating and relatively high tech — Im just completing the design of a community-based natural miombo forest management project for the charcoal supply zone for Lubumbashi in Democratic Republic of Congo and I’m wondering if a similar approach would work with African communities.

    My main concern is with the term “sustainable charcoal”. A lot of people are using this term these days and I’m suspicious of it. My perspective is that charcoal can only be sustainable if it comes from sustainably managed forests. More efficient charcoal kilns doesn’t make charcoal production sustainable — it decreases the amount of wood needed, but it doesn’t mean that the wood is being produced sustainably. Most of the people using the term “sustainable charcoal” seem to be concentrating mainly or exclusively on the efficiency of the charcoal kilns. Your article says very little about what type of forests you are managing and how you are managing them. Are these humid forests? You talk about harvesting trees along power lines and cutting branches, but do you have a system for harvesting trees from the forest itself and for ensuring the regeneration of what is harvested?

    Miombo management and dryland forest management in general in Africa is made relatively easy because virtually all of the species sprout from the stump. The sprouts only need to be protected from fire, grazing and cutting for 2 to four years after cutting to reestablish the forest.

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