Friday, April 14, 2006

Ecologist Not Just Gathering Dust.


I love stories about someone turning garbage into something useful. It's a lengthy story, but interesting in that respect. The gentleman's site is here.

KIBERA, KENYA -- In her tiny mud-walled home outside Nairobi, Zainaba Adhiambo shows off the ash remaining in her charcoal-burning stove called a jiko, the only appliance in the dark unventilated kitchen.

Like most of the 700,000 residents of Kibera, Africa's largest slum, Ms. Adhiambo relies on her jiko for both heating and cooking. She says coal-smoke used to fill her home, staining furniture and affecting her four small children. But not any more.

Now she uses an innovative briquette made from the dust waste of traditional charcoal manufacturing. The brainchild of Canadian ecologist and entrepreneur Elsen Karstad, Chardust briquettes are providing part of the solution to a complex health and environmental problem affecting Kenya and much of Africa.

Most charcoal in Kenya is from wood illegally cut from public forests and burned under mounds of soil to carbonize it.

It's a $270-million business and provides a modest living for thousands in a country where unemployment is at 60 per cent. But it comes with a heavy impact on forests, and ecologists say the industry is likely not sustainable long-term.

There is also a health risk of burning the cheap but crude charcoal, which releases thick smoke and sparks that can cause house fires. The World Health Organization says smoke from stoves and fires kills 1.6 million women and children in Africa every year.

While buckets of smooth, round Chardust briquettes sell for 20 shillings a bucket (about 30 cents), five shillings more than the rough chunks of regular charcoal, customers such as Ms. Adhiambo say it is worth the price because it is cleaner and burns longer.

"For one bucket [of Chardust] you can compare it with maybe three buckets of [regular] charcoal," she said.

After receiving $132,000 from the World Bank last year, Chardust has partnered with a community-based organization in Kibera to train residents to collect the dust from charcoal vendors, which it hauls away to be made into briquettes.

Stephen Njuguna, the Chardust employee in charge of the Kibera project, pointed to the sooty waste outside a charcoal vendor's stall, which, he said, blows everywhere and clogs up drainage pipes if left unused.

"What we are collecting here is the fine material that has been properly carbonized," he said.

That means once it's made into briquettes, it won't spark or smoke.

The project has made work for dozens of Kibera residents such as Mary Masitsa, who earns 4,000 shillings a month to work at one of Chardust's collection and sales sites.

It's less than $70 a month, but Ms. Masitsa says it's more than she used to make selling water.

At Chardust's plant in Nairobi's Karen neighbourhood, Mr. Karstad walked proudly through rows of hundreds of racks covered in briquettes being dried by the sun.

Raised in Guelph, Ont., he first came to Kenya as a high-school student in 1971. He returned to research hippopotamus ecology, and decided to stay.

The idea for Chardust was born five years ago when Mr. Karstad was trying to find an ecologically sensitive way to keep chickens warm.

He was able to make charcoal from organic waste such as coffee-bean husks, but not on a scale large enough to make for a viable business. Then he noticed the piles of black charcoal dust at wholesaler sites and saw an opportunity.

Today, Chardust sells eight tonnes of briquettes a day, has annual revenues of $200,000 and employs 70 people. The business also helps charcoal wholesalers by paying them about $40 a truck load for what was once waste they had to dispose of themselves.

Six feet 4 inches tall and clad in khakis with a large caribou belt buckle, Mr. Karstad pulled out a notepad and eagerly listed Chardust's ecological achievements.

Since 2000, he said, he has produced enough briquettes to save "the equivalent of 81,000 tonnes of trees, or a 380-hectare acacia forest." But, he is quick to add, it is also a viable profit-making venture.

Wood fuels such as charcoal make up 80 per cent of Kenya's primary fuel needs, and that has little chance of changing soon.

Mr. Karstad said he a pragmatist trying to bring some efficiency to an ultimately unsustainable industry.

"When people talk about controlling the trade, they're not thinking about the number of people that they're going to be putting out of work," he said. "And we're doing the opposite. We're actually proving that there is an alternative."

1 comment:

FAF said...

always nice to read about the brainchild of a canadian.