From WASTE to ENERGY to WEALTH: household waste-based ecological coal launches in the Republic of Congo

29 octobre 2021

Organic coal Made in Congo

Producing organic charcoal with household waste of all kinds is the challenge that a young man in the city of Pointe Noire has set himself. In addition to the positive environmental impact of the product, the initiative recycles household waste that floods the streets of the city.

Pointe-Noire, located in the south of the Republic of Congo, is the economic hub of the country where household waste management is particularly complicated.  Parts of the city's neighborhoods are difficult to access for the local waste collection and disposal private service provider. It is therefore not uncommon to come across piles of food scraps, vegetables or other waste waiting around the city.

How to make use of this waste while protecting the environment? A young man from graduated from the national Marien Ngouabi University in Brazzaville provides an answer by creating a new type of 100% ecological coal.

Quite uncommon in the country, the initiative has sparked the locals' interest; when presented with this coal and explained about the process and its origins, the people of Pointe-Noire couldn't believe it.

Discovered during the caravan on innovation organized by UNDP AccLab team in 2019, Destin BIBILA is the initiator of this project named "WUMELA" meaning "sustainable" in Lingala, one of the most spoken local languages in the Republic of Congo. The project consists of converting organic household waste into bio-coal and a source of energy and income. The value chain of the process can be described as: from WASTE to ENERGY to WEALTH.

Destin started from the observation that households in the city of Pointe-Noire still use firewood and charcoal as main source of energy and according to the report published by the national REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) Coordination Unit in October 2014, "61.1% of households use wood and charcoal as a source of energy". This represents one of the main causes of deforestation in areas near major cities in the Republic of Congo, as wood is often either cut or burned directly in the forest to make charcoal. Additionally, giant piles of garbage abound around the city of Pointe Noire emphasizing the negative environmental impact. It is with the idea of solving this environmental problem that Destin Bibila has put in place his solution.

Wanting to better understand this initiative, we at the Acclab Congo have engaged in a series of discussions with the various actors around it. We came to a decision that we needed to conduct an experimentation process to understand what works and what needs improvement in this process and looking at the production value chain.

Waste pick up round

An experimentation process conducted by UNDP Congo's AccLab and its national partners

When we decided to experiment with this solution, the first idea was to look for local partners with whom we should conduct this process. In that regard, we approached the National Institute for Research in Engineering Sciences, Innovation and Technology with its research department on renewable energies which we exchanged with, to establish a partnership. Following the exchanges, we developed a roadmap that made it possible to conduct the experimentation process.

This phase began with a joint mission to Pointe-Noire where we worked together with the promoter Mr BIBILA's team to explore ways to replicate the process. For this purpose, we undertook a tour in the markets and landfills with a team of handlers to collect all kinds of organic waste such as banana peelings, cassava leaves, food scraps, etc.

It was then necessary to sun-dry the waste to lose the maximum amount of water. Then followed the carbonization and grinding of carbonaceous materials that will then be kneaded with additives (Clay or Amidon) to have a homogeneous mixture that will pass to molding and will be subjected to natural drying to finalize the process.

Following this phase, we took some samples of the briquettes back to the laboratory in Brazzaville to conduct a comparative study with charcoal traditionally used by households. These analyses focused on the following elements: fire taking time, cooking time, consuming time and crushing resistance. To compare these elements, we used a traditional dish of beans; it was a question of cooking 400g of beans with two different sources of energy keeping the same amount of coal, type of cooker and, amount of water.

What have we learned?

This coal presents several advantages. With 2kg of samples of organic charcoal and wood briquettes, we cooked 400g of beans per cooker. It follows from this experience that bio-coals turn out to be more interesting in the sense that: it is more energetic in terms of consumption (about twice as much) than charcoal; it is less messy and therefore emits less CO2, which affects climate change. Finally, from the economic perspective, it is two times cheaper for the consumer because a kilo costs only 200 CFA francs (0.34 USD) against about 400 (0.68 USD) for traditional charcoal.

The laboratory's perspectives

The initiative is not yet viable at scale and in the longer term, even if the promoter admits to having large orders, above its means of production, from local restaurants and hotels.

We want to engage municipal authorities and state actors in charge of forests and the environment and other non-state  actors including all those whose activity generates biodegradable waste, the sanitation service providers of the two major cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, research centers and technical and financial partners to advocate the product and its impacts on climate change and explore the possibilities of integrating this solution into various urban waste management solutions and the fight against deforestation. If government provides an enabling environment, the solution can be taking to scale and generate employment opportunities for the youth and women and be a good source of income and contribute to combat climate change.

By Arsene Saya, , Head of Experimentation Accelerator LAb UNDP Congo