Fighting Deforestation with Coconuts

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Sierra Leone has a lot in common with Sri Lanka. Both countries were ruled for a time by the British. Both countries have been through civil wars since gaining independence. Both countries suffer from landslides made worse by deforestation – and both countries have lots of coconuts.

Just over 4 years ago Alhaji Siraj Bah had a lucky escape. He was working a night shift when torrential rains caused a massive mud slide, which swept away his home and killed more than a thousand people in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Now he runs a thriving business with nearly three dozen employees and an ambitious goal: reduce the felling of Sierra Leone’s trees, a loss that scientists say amplifies the mudslide risk, by encouraging people to swap wood-based charcoal for a substitute made from coconut scraps. Heaps of shells and husks discarded by juice sellers around Freetown provide an energy source that preserves trees.

His business, Rugsal Trading, has now produced roughly 100 tons of coconut briquettes which, studies show, burn longer for families who do most of their cooking on small outdoor stoves. The Washington Post reports that a study in the Philippines found that a ton of charcoal fashioned from natural waste was equivalent to sparing up to 88 trees with 10-centimetre trunks.

“My motivation is: The bigger we grow, the more we can save our trees,” Bah said on a steamy afternoon in the capital, chatting between coconut waste collection stops. “The hardest part is getting the word out about this alternative. Everyone loves charcoal.” Researchers aren’t sure what triggered the worst natural disaster in the West African country’s history, but some pointed to the vanishing greenery. Deforestation not only releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it also weakens slopes.

As in Sri Lanka, forest canopies are critical for soaking up rain and taming floods. Roots anchor the soil together. But Freetown’s hills were going bald as people collected timber to make charcoal, the top cooking fuel in a nation where electricity is often unreliable. Similarly people across Sri Lanka are now turning to wood for cooking because of rolling power cuts and the shortage of gas,

Sierra Leone has lost 30 per cent of its forest cover over the last two decades, according to Global Forest Watch. The situation isn’t as bad in Sri Lanka, but Global Forest watch says in 2010, Sri Lanka had 3.53Mha of natural forest, extending over 54 per cent of its land area. In 2020, it lost 11.2kha of natural forest, equivalent to 4.40Mt of CO2 emissions. Bah noticed men harvesting wood practically every day. Many burned it to produce bags of charcoal. Most people he knew cooked with it. What if he could change that?

Bah was inspired by a video of a man in Indonesia who crafted charcoal replacements from coconut shells. Others were doing something similar in Ghana and Kenya: Collecting coconut scraps, drying them out in the sun, grinding them down, charring them in steel drums.

The Indonesian man on YouTube said the briquettes would smoulder twice as long as charcoal, and a study in Ghana backed up the claim. That was Bah’s selling point: A typical buyer, he knew, wanted to save cash, benefitting the environment would be an added bonus.

His first attempts failed, but eventually Bah succeeded. His list of clients grew and he built a small factory. Since then his business has gone from strength to strength.

The UN named him a ‘Young Champion of the Earth’ finalist in 2019. He received an invitation the following year to pitch at a start-up conference at Harvard Business School, where he won a $5,000 prize.

In a good month the business now turns over $11,000 in revenue. But he has bigger ambitions. “We have a lot more to do,” Bah told the Washington Post. He has ordered an assembly line from China, which would allow the company to make eight tons of briquettes an hour.

Deforestation still worries him. Charcoal remains king in Africa — the continent accounts for 65 per cent of global charcoal production – and people haven’t stopped hacking down trees in Sierra Leone.

According to the Export Development Board, Sri Lanka is already “a leading producer and supplier of coconut shell charcoal.” But more needs to be done to preserve the forests and to persuade consumers to switch to coconut charcoal. Maybe someone should give Alhaji Siraj Bah a call.

By Michael Gregson