A replacement for firewood?

On a recent working trip to Malawi in central East Africa, I watched a scene that made me hopeful for that gentle but impoverished nation.

A group of village entrepreneurs was salvaging dead plant material and turning it into fuel briquettes the shape of oversized hockey pucks. The briquettes were burned in place of firewood. Because this process provides fuel that is less expensive than local firewood, it could help save the forest.

At least, that's what I hope, and why I've been involved in helping to train briquette-making groups in Malawi for five years.

In Malawi, a nation the size of Ohio, experts in environmental monitoring report the forest cover has shrunk by 41 percent in the last two decades alone. Deforestation progresses at 2 to 3 percent a year.

Malawi's situation is typical of many other developing nations.

In sub-Saharan Africa and much of the Caribbean, similar depletion rates are being observed, according to the United Nations and other monitoring organizations.

Some reports on Malawi say the rate of deforestation is so rapid it appears we may see the total elimination of all harvestable forest cover by 2025. The implications for climate, agriculture production, and human health are not promising.

In most of these countries, 75 percent the wood being cut is for household cooking, environmental experts say.

So a solution to this deforestation won't work on a large scale unless it is readily available to the majority of rural and urban households, is adopted by the population, and is ecologically sustainable.

This new method of briquette making apparently meets those criteria. It uses local "free" plant waste, the equipment is inexpensive to build, and - key to its success - it provides a source of immediate cash income to the producers.

The briquettes are made of dried plant material such as leaves, stems, ferns, stalks - including the highly destructive and ubiquitous water hyacinth -and processed wastes such as sawdust, rice husks, and waste paper.

The plant materials are chopped and decomposed, then pulverized and mixed with water into a pulp. The pulp is stuffed into a perforated plastic pipe mold and pressed to release excess water. Out of the pipe come 4-inch diameter cakes, which are dried in the sun.

From an environmental perspective, every six-person briquette-production enterprise, working five hours a day, reaches 300 consumers. In Malawi and much of southern Africa, that means each enterprise group could save 80 tons of fuelwood per year.

The process has great economic benefits, too. The producers stand to earn up to 30 percent more income than the local average.

But the capacity for extending this technology through the trainees themselves is far more significant. We have found that two-thirds of the people we train demonstrate the interest and ability to train others. The six-person groups can pay for the training with six-months' worth of briquette sales.

Even allowing for normal attrition, the potential is great for reaching a large segment of the population.

The efforts to spread this technology in Malawi have provided an overall delivery model that seems to offer a viable solution to a major concern.

Encouraged by the results and in response to a growing number of inquiries, we have recently introduced the technology in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

Still, the idea does not spread automatically. Besides challenging a very deep-seated tradition of firewood use, fuel briquette production may also challenge local traditions of work and division of labor. Quite beyond their technical, economic, environmental, and functional acceptability, briquettes require a certain social validation to become acceptable.

This is where the private sector has a role to play through mass media and marketing. And what the briquette project in turn offers the private sector is an opportunity to reach an expanded consumer market.

It may be that all of the disenfranchised people on our planet will someday have electricity or become self-sufficient through massive tree-planting programs. But until that time comes, we have a huge gap to fill. This new briquette technology is one proven solution.

*Richard Stanley is executive director of the Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to sustainable development and environmental preservation, based in Ashland, Ore. Legacy is involved in spreading the briquette technology.

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