11 January 2013

Uganda: Waste Provides Energy Solutions

Feeling the pinch of soaring energy costs or choking on smoke in the kitchen? Organic waste, which is being processed into smokeless briquettes that are cheaper than ordinary charcoal could provide an escape route to reduce expenses and promote sustainable use of the environment, writes Gerald Tenywa.

The term "stinking rich" is getting its true meaning at Kabembe village in Mukono district, where waste such as banana peels is converted into charcoal briquettes that sell like hot cakes in Kampala.

At the fledging Green Bioenergy factory sitting among rolling hills in Mukono is where the true worth of waste is being discovered.

Agricultural residues and organic waste are among the main raw materials that are processed by burning and later mixed with cassava that acts as a binder. Other raw materials include charcoal dust. This is later pressed by a machine that rolls out tonnes of charcoal briquettes for cooking.

Godfrey Serwadda, a resident of Kabembe, says a family of six people could use up to 25kg of charcoal briquettes and spends about sh20,000 every week. He adds that ordinary charcoal would cost up to sh50,000 to cook food for his family in a week.

Serwadda also pointed out that a kilogramme of charcoal briquettes goes for sh800 and that this is enough to cook the meals in a day for one person. "It is no longer possible to get ordinary charcoal for sh1,000," Serwadda says, adding that the charcoal being produced in recent years burns out fast because it is made from poor quality trees.

"The charcoal burns out quickly and you cannot be sure of what you are buying. For briquettes, the quality and the weight are known."

"The briquettes give more heat and food gets ready faster than when ordinary charcoal is used," Serwadda adds. "Agricultural residues and organic waste have always been neglected, but this is changing. People are realising that there is money hidden in the trash around them," says Dorius Okello, a marketing and public relations officer at Green Bioenergy in Bugolobi.

He points out that charcoal briquettes have more advantages because they are cheap, eco-friendly and provide employment to some of the most disadvantaged urban residents of Kampala.

"Charcoal briquettes help users not to burn their money because they are cheaper than charcoal," says Okello, adding that during production of the briquettes, there is no need to cut down trees since the chief raw materials is what is seen as waste by many people.

As Kampala residents turn to charcoal briquettes, Green Bioenergy with a slogan, "waste into wealth for inclusive wealth" is benefi ting low income earners, particularly women who collect and dry the waste.

"When we train people who supply the raw materials, the women get more interested," says Okello, adding that they collect the waste, sort it and dry it before burning it to produce char, which is later taken to Kabembe for processing into briquettes.

Okello says the briquettes come in packages of 5.5kg, with 112 briquettes that go for sh7,000, a 1.2kg bag goes for sh800 and a 25kg one costs sh18000. Bags of 50kg go for sh35,000. The packages come with sticks for lighting the briquettes.


The briquettes are smokeless, meaning they provide more energy than charcoal. In addition, they do not expose the users to fumes that have been associated with a number of respiratory diseases, including lung cancer.

However, users say briquettes are not as available as charcoal, which is sold in all markets with retail outlets around residential areas. But Green Bioenergy insists that they will not leave any stone unturned as they seek to take over from the "small timers" who are experimenting and but are ill-equipped to satisfy the market.

"We have set up different outlets in the city, including in luxurious supermarkets," Okello says, adding that they will set up a production centre in every district and later expand into East Africa.

Briquettes overpowering charcoal Richard Kisakye, a biomass expert, says for a long time charcoal has been cheaper than briquettes, making it diffi cult for investors to sink their money into the alternative sources of energy.

"As the charcoal prices increase, it is making business sense for investors to put their money into processing briquettes," Kisakye said, adding that large-scale processers are being attracted to the business.

He said about 20 years ago, a factory was set up to make briquettes using coffee husks as the raw material at Namulesa Coffee Factory near Jinja, but it closed because there was still a lot of wood to produce charcoal cheaply.

"The business collapsed since it could not compete. Kampala Jellistone Suppliers is another company that has stood for a decade producing briquettes," Kisakye noted.

Apart from Green Bioenergy, which started recently, and Kampala Jellistone Suppliers, the other large producer of briquettes is South Busoga. The trio control 98% of the market.

Others are small scale producers estimated to be 100. They rely on manual methods of production and controll only 2% of the market. Briquettes provide only 2% of the energy consumed in Uganda.

Others like firewood cover 88% of the country's energy needs, followed by petroleum products at 6%, ordinary charcoal standing at 5% and electricity at 1%. Kisakye says firewood and charcoal are produced unsustainably and are greatly contributing to deforestation, estimated at 92,000 hectares annually, which is one of the fastest rates in the world.

Although the history of making charcoal briquettes is littered with many failed attempts to overtake charcoal, Kisakye says the prospects for the briquettes making industry have never been brighter than now.

"People are hungry for the briquettes and whatever is produced is being consumed," he says. Policy statement on briquettes, charcoal missing But what is a frustrating biomass energy such as briquettes and charcoal is that there is no policy statement on the energy providersbriquettes and charcoal, meaning they are developing on their own.

"The Government is silent on the quality of briquettes and charcoal. Who is supposed to check this?" asks Kisakye. He adds that policy reviews on renewable energy and forestry should embrace biomass energy.

Okello says Green Bioenergy believes in "people, planet and profi t" to achieve sustainability. This, he adds, is what is driving Green Bioenergy to ensure that the current users of charcoal and firewood, mostly low-income and middle-income earners, get armed with affordable and eco-friendly energy sources - briquettes.

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