When Lubigi wastewater treatment plant was commissioned in 2014, many thought the plant would stop at treating the 5.4 million litres per day and waste water from septic tanks and pit latrines from the surrounding communities.
But the plant has turned into a gold mine for a group of women who produce energy from the purified human waste substance from the plant.
This came after failed attempts by government to generate electricity from the sewage plant.
Through their briquette makers and stove group of 20 women, the small scale women entrepreneurs in Nansana, Wakiso District, mobilised Shs3m as capital in 2014 to start mixing kitchen waste with processed human waste from the swamp to make charcoal.
The women say they find pride in earning while preserving the environment since they do not need to cut down trees to produce the energy.
At the home of one of the group directors, where the charcoal production is executed, there is a rack at the extreme front yard of a visibly ancient house laying mostly maize combs and other kitchen waste together with heaps of human waste in blocks.
As Teopista Ochieng takes me around her home, I notice there is a drying shade containing a stockpile for raw materials used in the manufacture of waste-made charcoal made in form of stick briquettes and honey combs. It is also at the same place where the briquettes and honey combs are laid out to dry for more than a week in both cases (the honey combs and stick briquettes), while the rest of the materials are also kept there to dry before they are carbonised, according to the 62-year-old.
“It all started when I heard a Nansana Town Council advert on radio calling upon women to attend a week-long training on environmental protection through production of charcoal using disposed material such as human and kitchen waste,” Ochieng says adding: “It’s from there that I picked interest and mobilised 20 other women into the same venture.”
Having paid Shs20,000 to attend the training on the simple manual techniques for making briquettes, Ochieng says she never procrastinated, but went ahead to put into practice what she had learnt.
“I first started with collecting kitchen waste within my home and the neighbourhood which I dried, and mixed with the faecal particles got freely from Lubigi treatment facility and dried to make char.” “I, however, didn’t have a machine,” Ochieng says.
The interest and commitment, she says, impressed the trainers who would later reward her with a charring drum used for carbonising the waste into a black substance called char before actually turning it into the desired shape.
Making the charcoal, cost and market
After collecting the waste, it is dried for close to one week before it is put into the charring drum to be carbonised and turn it into dust (char) before it is mixed with the crushed faecal substance to act as a binder.
Among other ingredients, the group takes tiny pieces of ordinary charcoal collected from the charcoal sellers which are also dried, crushed and carbonised with the other waste.
The mixture is then wet before it is fed into an extruder machine, to compact it and produce stick briquettes, Ochieng explains.
The honey combs on the other side are compacted into the comb machine which produces one every five minutes adding up to 25-30 combs a day.
Ochieng says the stick briquetting machine (pictured) is rolled and cut to any size one wants and produces between 800-1000 briquettes a day which are then dried in the drying shed where they are laid on the wire mesh.
How charcoal from waste is used
Ochieng says the stove is best used to prepare food in a household like any other ordinary stoves. The difference is that it doesn’t release black soot that stains the saucepan but instead a blue flame.
The stick briquettes, she says, are used in charcoal stoves while the honey combs are placed in clay charcoal stoves, lit and burnt between eight to 10 hours.
It’s, therefore, not advisable to use the energy to cook soft food such as rice since it burns very fast.
The stick briquettes which the group sells in kilogrammes cost Shs1,000 while the honey comb is Shs2,000 each.
Among other challenges faced, the group outlines limited market which they attribute to limited awareness of their products by the public but they are also optimistic that their market keeps growing each day.
The business, Ochieng says, which is currently considered to be worth more than Shs3m has managed to grow through fundraising among members and also support from the Voluntary Advocacy for development (VAD), a non-government organisation. “We have so far received Shs400, 000 as a group from VAD in their effort to boost their benefits from the Sacco,” she says.
Though still on a tiny scale, the group’s initiative is one among several others aimed at finding alternative ways to produce energy in form of charcoal widely demanded for domestic use without destroying forests to burn charcoal.
According to a 2009 report by National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), in 1990 Uganda had more than five million hectares of forest cover. But by 2005, only 3.5 million (8.6 million acres) were remaining.
Data from Energy ministry indicates that urban centres consume about 1.8 million tonnes of charcoal annually. This, and the exclusivity of wood fuel used in rural areas, among other reasons, makes Uganda lose more than 92,000 hectares of trees annually with only 7,000 hectares replenished.
Conservationists estimate that Bunyoro alone loses about 7,000 hectares of forests annually. So, Nema warns that if deforestation continues at the current rate, Uganda will have lost all its forested land by 2050.
The threat on environment is even more alarming given the high population growth of 3.03 per cent as indicated by the Uganda National bureau of Statistics (UBOS).
According to UBOS, the growth rate if maintained would mean the country’s population will hit 47 million by 2025 from 34.9 million and 24 million in 2002.
However, despite the environment-related negative effects of using charcoal as the main energy source for cooking, without wood and charcoal, almost all Ugandans would be unable to cook despite the country’s increased electricity supply.
This is due to high tariffs where a domestic consumer is charged Shs558.4 a unit, notwithstanding the installed generation capacity from 60 megawatts (MW) in 1954 to 682 MW as of 2012, which very few Ugandans can afford especially, for cooking.
According to Uganda electricity and distribution company limited (UEDCL) access to electricity by 2013 at national level in Uganda was still very low at 15 per cent (1991: 5.6 per cent; 2006: 9 per cent; 2010: 10 per cent) but with only 7 per cent in rural areas.
Uganda currently has one of the lowest per capita electricity consumption in the world with 215kWh per capita per year (Sub-Saharan Africa’s average: 552kWh per capita, World average: 2,975 per capita.