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Preserving forests while emptying trash cans? The story of a Burkinese green charcoal

Illustration: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

In Burkina Faso, trees are disappearing and garbage is forming mountains. A Burkinese engineer found a solution that works for the trees and against the garbage — green charcoal, produced from waste, used for cooking while preserving the forest.

This article is the first episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World" originally published in French on Heidi.news.

It's a small association workshop planted in the middle of the factories, mastodons of the cement industry in Burkina Faso. Below the industrial zone of Kossodo, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, the eight employees of the Africa Ecologie association are finalizing the construction of a type of facility never before seen in the poor West African country: a waste sorting and recycling centre where organic waste — once carbonized, dried, crushed and compressed with coconut husks —is used by the Burkinese people as fuel for cooking and heating.

Read the article in French: Préserver les forêts tout en vidant les poubelles? Histoire d’un charbon vert

"Here's our green coal," smiles Azize Hema, the founder and president of Africa Ecologie, while pointing to the little black cubes that pile up at the exit of the brick kiln. Production has just begun last 29 January. The loud noises made of the newly installed machines are still not as reassuring, but the small Burkinese team is already dreaming of conquering the Burkinese coal market. "Coal is the most widely used fuel in our country. Two million households use it daily for cooking and heating. But this traditional coal that’s made from wood, is very bad for the environment. Every year, three million of our trees are cut down just to produce it! If we continue at this rate, in a few years, we won't have any more forests," says Azize Hema as he leaves his workshop.

"50,000 hectares of forest disappear every year"

Around the 33-year-old Burkinese, the landscape is almost moon-like. Only a few leafless trees have resisted the advance of the desert. The phenomenon is largely due to the massive deforestation that is taking place in Burkina Faso: 50,000 hectares of forest disappear every year, according to the United Nations. “The abusive felling of wood does not help, nor does the current health crisis," says Hema, before warning, "With Covid-19, many Burkinese have lost their jobs and have turned to charcoal production. They are cutting down more and more trees to make money. In the Tapoa forest, deforestation is massive."

Read also the author’s editorial: Pour changer de narratif sur l’Afrique, j’ai écrit onze épisodes sur les solutions du continent

It has been seven years since the young civil engineering graduate has started searching for a solution to this environmental problem that threatens his country's ecosystems. In 2013, he came up with the idea of a green charcoal that would not only protect forests but also help fight against the proliferation of garbage in Burkina Faso. At the workshop in Kossodo, the trailers of organic waste are emptied and set out again. 200 kilos of waste arrive here every day to enable the small team to produce its green charcoal. This is the main raw material for this ecological fuel.

"We collect garbage from the services of the Ouagadougou mayor and from the households that have set up the sorting bins we offered them. When they arrive here, we remove the plastic residues and all other impurities, then we mix them with coconut husks, before carbonizing the whole thing," says Tarpalla. In a quick motion, the person in charge of the production process is released from the thick cloud of black smoke coming out of four barrels of recycled petrol. The carbonization of green coal is in progress.

"No waste, only raw materials"

Africa Ecologie has recalibrated these barrels abandoned on the public highway to give them a second life. "On our site, there is no waste, only raw materials," says Aziz Hema. The offices of his workshop are housed in containers — also once abandoned — whose roofs are covered with solar panels that allow the site to be self-sufficient in electricity.

For the engineer, each step in the production of his green coal is an opportunity to go further in the circular economy. The binder between the coconut husks and the organic waste comes from the remains of a factory producing attiéké, manioc semolina that is widely consumed in West Africa. As for the plastic residues and other non-combustible waste from garbage collection, Africa Ecologie supplies them to two Burkinese partner associations who will, in turn, give them a second life. The plastic will be transformed into school tables and benches, and the waste will be used to make food for cattle and poultry.

This circular approach is a godsend for the authorities in charge of sanitation in the capital. Ouagadougou generates 600,000 tonnes of household waste per year. Only 2 to 3% of this waste is recycled. The rest is buried in landfills that threaten to overflow. This costs the city a lot: more than two billion CFA francs (CHF 3.3 million / 3 million euros) every year. "By adding value to waste upstream, we can reduce the large quantities of garbage that have to be managed at a high cost. It saves us money and is good for the planet," says Mahamadou Cissé, adviser in charge of the environment at Ouagadougou's town hall.

Two tonnes of green coal sold

For Africa Ecologie, the production of green coal is an economic godsend as well. "We get our raw material for free, or almost free. It allows us to offer ecological coal that is half the price and therefore accessible to all social classes," explains Azize Hema. So when the competition sells a 28-kilogram bag of charcoal for about 7,500 CFA francs (CHF 12.30 or 11.40 euros), Africa Ecologie is able to offer 50 kilos of green charcoal for the same price.

But the start is proving timid. Since last January, nearly two tonnes of green coal has been sold to some forty loyal customers. The fault lies with Covid-19 and the consequent halt in the economy, reassures the engineer. His ambition is much greater and goes beyond the borders of Burkina Faso. So, while waiting for the health crisis to pass, Aziz Hema refines his dream. That of building a pan-African network of social enterprises like his own, capable of producing green coal all over Africa.

He, who in 2019 travelled to Cameroon to benefit from the know-how of Muller Tenkeu, one of the pioneers of clean coal on the continent, intends to continue the transfer of skills to the rest of the continent. In the coming months, two Madagascan and Guinean trainees will join the Africa Ecology workshop to learn in turn how to produce green coal.

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year his work Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes was published by La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world