With little access to electricity, almost all of the residents of North and South Kivu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo use charcoal to cook. A lot of the wood for this charcoal comes from nearby national parks. In an attempt to slow deforestation and save the incredible biodiversity of these parks, one local group has begun training people to make fuel-saving balls of clay to reduce the need for wood charcoal.
 

Uncontrolled illegal logging is a huge threat to several nature reserves and national parks in North and South Kivu, including Virunga, which is renowned for being home to a wide variety of animal species including the mountain gorilla, and Kahuzi-Biega, which is home to one of the last groups of Grauer gorillas.
 


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These photos, taken by members of Objectif Brousse in 2019, show the impact of deforestation on the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Much of this deforestation is linked to the illegal production of wood charcoal.
 

An organisation called Objectif Brousse came up with a unique solution to respond to the region’s energy needs: cut down on charcoal use and provide economic opportunities for local people. In late 2019, they started training people to make clay balls, which are a combination of clay, water and organic waste. When you mix these balls of clay in with a bit of charcoal, you can significantly cut down on the quantities of charcoal used.
 

"You can save 80% of charcoal by using these balls of clay because they last for a week"

Objectif Brousse is a French organisation primarily financed by donations that has been operating in the two Kivu provinces since 2005. In 2006, students in Goma launched a project making these balls of clay but it was short-lived. Objectif Brousse reignited the program in November 2019, organising workshops in three villages in Kabare in South Kivu.

This Facebook post by Objectif Brousse shows a group of people learning how to make the fuel-saving balls of clay in Chibuga, a village near Kahuzi Biega National Park that is home to members of the Pygmy tribe. The group claims these balls can cut down on wood charcoal use by up to 70%.
 
Objectif Brousse partners with local instructors who already work in the agro-forestry field, like Cédric-Dubois Muliri, who is a biology researcher at the University of Bukavu.
 
These balls have the advantage of being made out of clay, which is readily available in both provinces. The balls don’t work alone – you have to mix them with a bit of wood charcoal. To respond to that need, we partnered with a group in Bukavu that makes organically-sourced charcoal that isn’t from national parks. The idea is to mix it with the clay balls. Using clay balls cuts down on nearly 80% of wood charcoal use because they last for a week. That is cheaper for locals, who don’t have to buy as much wood charcoal as before.
 
These photos show people from Objectif Brousse talking to locals about how many trees can be saved by using these clay balls, which are like round briquettes that can be used as fuel when mixed in with a bit of charcoal. They visited local restaurants to install special cookstoves, which can also be used to save fuel, and to get owners interested in the clay balls so that the new trainees will have ready customers.
 
Objectif Brousse says that one kilogram of regular charcoal costs around 300 francs and can only be used once, while one kilogram of clay balls costs around 900 francs and can be used for 15 days.
 
Nearly 120 people attended the first workshops. Because there wasn’t yet a market for these clay balls, we decided to set up a number of “foyers fixes”, which are specially built traditional clay cookstoves that use two ceramic plates to be more heat-efficient. We installed these cookstoves for free, with the aim of raising awareness about the problem of wood charcoal and getting people interested in using clay balls instead. Since our training sessions, several participants have been selling clay balls or opened up their own small businesses.

In this post on Facebook, Objectif Brousse talks about setting up specially made traditional cookstoves, installed with two ceramic plates to maintain the heat, in all the restaurants in Miti-Kafurmaye, a grouping made up of several villages that is less than 10km from the famous Kahuzi Biega National Park in South Kivu.The owners of these restaurants, who all happen to be women, were extremely impressed.

 
Workshops for the widows of former park rangers
 
In June 2020, we ran several workshops for a group of widows whose husbands had been park rangers at Kahuzi-Biega National Park. These women's husbands died as conservation heroes. Park rangers protect the park from illegal activities, which is often a dangerous job. However, after their deaths, many of these women are left without any kind of income. We offered to train them in making clay balls, which enables them to make some money while also doing something to help the environment. We started by training 20 women how to make both clay balls and special cookstoves.

Objectif Brousse trained the widows of former park rangers in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in June. (These photos were sent by Cédric-Dubois Muliri).
 
In early July, we ran several workshops for widows of Virunga park rangers. In April, thirteen rangers were killed during an attack on the park [Editor’s note: A driver and four civilians also died in this ambush carried out by an armed group that operates within the park]. We did the training in Goma, where some of the women live. One of the women has already sold some of the balls she made during the workshop.

Objectif Brousse led workshops for the widows of park rangers at Virunga National Park on July 9 and 10 in Goma. (Photos by Cédric-Dubois Muliri).

This interview features Corine Sekele and Falone Matwe, two women who took part in the workshop on clay ball production organised by Objectif Brousse in Goma on July 9 and 10, 2020. (Video: Cédric-Dubois Muliri / Objectif Brousse).

Xavier Gilibert is the president of Objectif Brousse. He wants to get all of the international and national organisations around Virunga to start buying and using clay balls to set an example for locals:

We need to teach more people the technique but our goal is to start selling 10kg bags filled with organically sourced charcoal and clay balls. The impact will be two-fold. First, we’ll be selling charcoal that lasts longer and doesn’t come from the parks. We’ll also be creating jobs.

In this post on Facebook, Objectif Brousse writes about Joëlle, the daughter of a park ranger who was killed on the job. She learned to make clay balls during a workshop run by the organisation.

 
In this post on Facebook, Objectif Brousse writes about one family in Miti that took part in a training session four months ago and can now live from the proceeds from making clay balls, instead of depending on the trees that make up the habitat of Grauer gorillas. The entire family is helping with production.

Other eco-friendly initiatives in Kivu
 
With nearly 155 million hectares of forest, the Democratic Republic of Congo contains more than half of the forest that makes up the Congo Basin, which is the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world after the Amazon. But, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the country is losing around 500,000 hectares of forest every year. Many other organisations and individuals have mobilised alongside Objectif Brousse to address this rapid deforestation.

In 2007, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) joined forces with several local associations to launch ECOmakala, which supplies people living in Goma with wood charcoal made from fast-growing trees cultivated on a plantation instead trees in Virunga. The WWF also supports a local business called Goma Stove, which manufactures and sells fuel-efficient cookstoves, which they say requires much less charcoal than other stoves.

In 2018, a Congolese student launched a company called 'Briquette du Kivu', which specialises in making eco-friendly charcoal from organic waste.

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Last year, Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi announced that he would make expanding access to electricity the “economic priority” of his presidency. According to a recent World Bank report, out of 10 million households in the country, only 1.6 million have access to electricity.

Written by Maëva Poulet.