In the Democratic Republic of Congo, most people use charcoal to cook. The dependence on charcoal contributes to both deforestation and the growing rates of respiratory illnesses. Eager to find an alternative to this combustible, a Congolese student launched a small business producing eco-friendly charcoal out of organic waste.

Murhula Zigabe, age 27, is a university student in Bukavu, a town in South Kivu. Though he studies philosophy, he recently launched the company "Briquette du Kivu”.

“There are online manuals that explain how to make eco-friendly charcoal”

Electricity remains a luxury in the DR Congo. [Editor’s note: In 2016, only 17.1% of the population of the DR Congo had access to electricity, according to the World Bank.] The majority of Congolese people are forced to use charcoal to cook, which contributes to deforestation, which is a factor in climate change. That’s why I wanted to find a solution to help safeguard our future.

Moreover, because there are less trees than before, the price of charcoal is increasing. Currently, a family has to spend at least 50 euro cents on charcoal to cook just one meal. So low-income households struggle to afford it, especially as there is a high rate of unemployment in our country.

Around seven months ago, I started researching online, trying to find an alternative to charcoal. That’s how I came across online manuals explaining how to make eco-friendly charcoal. So I started carrying out trials at home.


Zigabe made these eco-charcoal briquettes while testing out different recipes.

I threw myself into launching this project, with the idea of creating jobs for young people and contributing to the fight against poverty. At first, I didn’t have much support.

But since then, I’ve recruited six volunteers, all young people under the age of 25. One of them is a law student and another is studying to be an electrician. The others had to quit school for financial reasons. When we start making money, I am hoping to be able to pay them.

Leftovers of corn and beans, banana skins and sugar cane...

To make our charcoal, we gather organic waste, everything from leftovers of corn and beans to banana skins and sugar cane skins. Each week, we collect 300 to 400 kilos of waste in the streets, at markets and even at people’s homes.

 

The team from "Briquette du Kivu" picks up organic waste.
 

Then we dry it out on the street because, for the time being, we don’t have a dedicated space. If there is a lot of sun, everything dries out in about four days.


Once the organic waste is gathered, next it has to be dried in the sun.
 

Then, we put the organic waste in a carbonization furnace. I had to explain to local metalworkers how to make it because they had never heard of anything like that. It’s kind of like a barrel. We burn a fire for about 45 minutes and, by then, the organic waste has reduced to a black and sort of powdery substance.

Then, you have to mix it with water to make a kind of paste, which we put into a press that we bought from Kenya [Editor’s note: The press is the blue machine that you can see in the main photo]. That’s how we make the briquettes, which are compressed combustibles used for fuel.

Then we have to leave them to dry in the sun for about six days before they can be used.

Before they can be used, the briquettes have to dry out in the sun for several days.
 

"Our briquettes are cheaper than charcoal”

For the time being, we’ve produced about 3,500 briquettes from 700 kilograms of waste. We’ve given away 100 briquettes to 18 households in the neighbourhood. They all found that our briquettes worked well to cook food. So now other people are also interested in our project.

Ultimately, we’d like to sell the briquettes for 50 Congolese francs a piece [Editor’s note: equivalent to 0.03 euros]. You need around six briquettes to cook a meal, so that would cost 300 Congolese francs [or 0.16 euros]. That is a lot cheaper for families than charcoal. Another advantage is that our briquettes produce less smoke. This reduces the amount of carbon released when people cook, which is better for the environment and for respiratory health.

In the short term, we’d like to have a warehouse where we could stock and sell our briquettes. Moreover, I’d like to be able to pay my team. For the time being, that isn’t possible as we haven’t yet made any money.

For that, we really need to be able to use an electric carbonization furnace and press because it is very expensive to make them all by hand as we are doing now. And, in the long term, I would love for the entire neighbourhood to be using our briquettes instead of charcoal.


According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the DR Congo loses about 500,000 hectares of forest each year.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Cameroon students turn household waste into eco-friendly coal

If you want to help Murhula Zigabe to develop his project, reach out to him by email: briquettedukivu@gmail.com

 

Article written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).