Sustainable Farming for Clean Cooking Fuel: The Quest to Kill Charcoal in Africa

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

In Africa, charcoal is a formidable two-pronged scourge. Eighty percent of the continent's population uses the stuff to cook every day, and breathing in those emissions day in day out leaves millions with asthma, with respiratory sickness, or dead. Meanwhile, Africa is growing fast, and its booming population demands more and more fuel for cooking—so more and more forest gets hacked down to provide it. Charcoal for cooking is the big reason deforestation in Africa is speeding along at a rate twice the worldwide average. It's also around a $10 billion market.

So that's the stage. Enter CleanStar Mozambique with a bona fide, potentially profit-making, Big Idea: Get Africa on track to ditch charcoal by replacing it with clean-burning biofuels refined from cassava, an indigenous, locally harvested crop.

Now, I've reported on plenty of good-intentioned, Big Ideas aimed at improving the lot of the very poor. Water pumps for rural villages, soccer balls that store up energy, et cetera, et cetera. The crucial difference here is how painstakingly comprehensive CleanStar's planning has been: this isn't just a single product for sale or a one-off education effort. This is a meticulously developed supply chain, built hand-in-hand with locals, that reaches from the farmers harvesting cassava to the salesman hawking the biofuel.

So, CleanStar, and its strategic partner Novozymes, the world's leading enzymes manufacturer, shipped me out to the eastern corner of Africa take a look at the whole operation—which took four full days and spanned as many different cities and towns around Mozambique. I can truly and without bias say this: I've never quite seen anything like it. Now let's walk through how this whole innovative scheme is supposed work.

1) A Sustainable Farming System

After two hours worth of winding, dusty roads from Mozambique's second city Biera—the same roads traveled by bicyclists who pedal 70 kilometers with giant loads of charcoal balancing behind the seat—we arrived at Savane, a rural town that serves as the hub of the sustainable farming operation. The farm spans 10 hectares, and grows peas, soy, beans, and sorghum as well as cassava. A group of women sit cross-legged in the dirt, shucking the hard exterior off the cassava, which looks like a giant wooden potato. They're loaded with starch, which makes them ideal for refining into biofuel.

The CleanStar team stationed there uses the farm to demonstrate conservation farming techniques to locals, like how to replenish the soil—it's been degraded in the slash and burn deforestation so rampant in the region—and sustainably grow a variety of crops in the region. CleanStar is primarily interested in the cassava, but they don't want farmers to abandon other crops, either. The company wants to avoid the ire of the food-not-fuel campaigners, and to try to ensure that the farms will steady, long-term operations.

So, the farm shows farmers how to rotate crops each season, and to plant trees that pull nutrient-rich soil up to the surface (and help reforest the region in the process). CleanStar will buy cassava from anyone—but it will offer a higher rate to those farmers who follow their sustainable methods. The company is currently relying on a patchwork pickup and delivery system; trucks are sent to the participating farmers' land to gather their cassava. CleanStar Mozambique CEO Bill Rustrick says that there are some 100 farmers currently using the program, and that they're hoping to soon have 500. Eventually, 3,000.

After all that cassava is gathered and processed—it needs to be shorn of its tough exterior—it's off to the biofuel plant for refining.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

2) The Biofuel Plant

An hour away from Savane sits Dondo, a town that's now home to Africa's first ethanol cooking fuel plant. The facility officially opened thursday, May 17th, and is currently up running, refining collected cassava into ethanol. The inauguration was rolled out with considerable fanfare—Mozambique's Federal Minister of Agriculture, José Pacheco , one of the higher-ranking officials in the nation's government, was on hand to speak at the event. Traditionally, the Mozambican has observed a ban instated against biofuel crop-growing operations, but it made an exception for the plant, reportedly as a result of the persistent lobbying efforts of Thelma Venichland, the CleanStar director of marketing.

Through a garbled translation, Pacheco lauded the jobs and prosperity the plant meant for Mozambique. When (and if) it's running at full capacity, it will produce 2 million liters (530,000 gallons) of ethanol fuel a year.

And CleanStar has calculated that this new market for cassava will greatly boost local farmers' income.

"We're estimating an average of a tripling of income in the first three or four years," said Stefan Maard, a senior adviser at Novozymes who's deeply involved in the project. That income is coming from an incredibly low baseline, he adds. But it will be enough for families to save some surplus, to pay for school—beyond covering basic necessities.

After the biofuel is refined and bottled up, it's shipped off to Maputo, where a local sales team will attempt to sell it, along with clean cookstoves, to tens of thousands of people. Here's how they'll do it.

Continued on Page 2: Bringing the Biofuel Cooking Stove to Africa.

Tags: Africa | Coal

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