Why have briquettes failed to take off despite potential to displace charcoal?

Oliver Sebahinyuza, the chairperson of a briquette making group in Kyegegwa District demonstrates how the product is made. PHOTOs | OWEN WAGABAZA

What you need to know:

  • In a bid to reverse the trend, alternatives to charcoal and firewood have been introduced and promoted, among them, biomass briquettes. Biomass briquettes are biofuel substitutes made of biodegradable green waste with lower emissions of greenhouses gases and carbon dioxide when compared to traditional fuel sources.  

Uganda’s forest cover has been on the declining trend in the past two decades. According to Global Forest Watch, between 2000 and 2020 Uganda lost over 23 percent of its tree cover in both natural and planted forests and an average of 20.8 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere annually. In total, 438 metric tons of carbon dioxide was emitted in the same period.

Tree cover loss in Uganda is mainly attributed to rapid population growth and the need for land for settlement and agriculture, urbanisation, industrialization and the increased demand for solid biomass for fuel.

The Uganda National Household Survey (2019/2020) shows that 73 percent and 21 percent of households in Uganda use firewood and charcoal for cooking, respectively. Combined, biomass fuel (charcoal and firewood) constitute the main fuel for cooking in 94 percent of households in Uganda.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO), unsustainable charcoal production practices and technologies are major causes of deforestation and forest degradation. Demand for wood fuel (charcoal and firewood) is on the upward curve and is growing at an annual rate of 4.2 percent.

FAO says, access to clean energy alternatives is generally low-at only 2percent  of the total population while demand for charcoal is about 2.3 million tonnes annually.  At the moment, close to 65percent  of urban households rely on charcoal as their major source of energy.

Since the 1980s, the Ugandan government has issued successive official bans on the production and transportation of charcoal in an attempt to curb illegal deforestation, however these bans are not rigorously enforced; policing agents are open to bribery and subsequently charcoal is still widely used.

In a bid to reverse the trend, alternatives to charcoal and firewood have been introduced and promoted, among them, biomass briquettes. Biomass briquettes are biofuel substitutes made of biodegradable green waste with lower emissions of greenhouses gases and carbon dioxide when compared to traditional fuel sources.  They can be produced with a range of raw materials including charcoal dust , sawdust, bagasse, coffee husks, maize cobs, wheat, beans, barley straws and paper.

Sarah Nankya, who runs a briquettes making factory explains that briquettes are environmentally friendly, cheap and burn for an average of two and half hours, meaning that a common person would save a lot. 

Adam Sserwanja, an environmental activist and a briquette manufacturer explains that while the majority of households continue to use expensive and unreliable energy sources such as firewood and charcoal, using briquettes is less expensive and has the potential to reduce deforestation, minimize waste streams, reduce indoor air pollution while at the same time creating employment for the locals.

“Large scale briquette manufacturers mostly use sawdust and this is one way of increasing the utilisation of trees, avoiding waste, significantly reducing the number of trees that are cut for firewood and charcoal and stimulating growth and development in the forestry value chain,” says Sserwanja.

“There is a lot of wastage in a number of saw milling factories in Uganda. The timber industry only takes a small percentage of a tree and then the rest is considered waste.  This (waste) remains largely unused or is sold off as firewood. But by making briquettes from saw dust, a forester is able to utilize up to 90percent  of the tree,” Sserwanja adds.

“Even if they are not made directly from trees(sawdust) but from other ingredients, briquettes are the equivalent of charcoal and if embraced and widely used, charcoal usage can greatly reduce or even stop thus reducing pressure on our forest cover.”  

Yet to take off

Unfortunately, according to Sserwanja, people have failed to appreciate the benefits that come with using briquettes.

“People are still glued to the use of charcoal, wherever you go, chances are high that you will find charcoal selling points every 300 meters and not find any briquettes selling point in the entire town/village. More and more briquette manufacturers are closing business due to lack of market for their products,” Sserwanja says.

Daniel Senfuma, a lecturer of Environmental Health Sciences at Victoria University Kampala explains that one of the major stumbling blocks derailing the massive uptake of briquettes in Ugandan households and factories is the need for special facilities like energy saving cooking stoves.

“Unlike charcoal, compatibility of briquettes with existing cooking equipment is a crucial factor. Requiring consumers to first buy a specially designed stove hugely restricts demand as many a time, these stoves are more costly in comparison to ordinary charcoal stoves, forcing the wanainchi to stick with the cheaper option of charcoal,” says Ssenfuma.

“And just like the wanainchi, institutions like schools, prisons and barracks don’t have facilities to use the briquettes. There is therefore need for the government to support these institutions in building energy saving stoves and this will go a long way in weaning them off wood fuel,” Ssenfuma adds

Another key challenge to briquettes ably replacing charcoal and firewood is the widely known fact that not only do they produce less intense heat, they tend to be more difficult to light and almost impossible to extinguish and relight.

“People don’t want things that stress them, briquette manufacturers need to do more research on how to easily light, extinguish and relight briquettes,” says Ssenfuma.

There is also a challenge of supply and availability. Where as in most urban/ peri-ruban areas there is an established and widespread network of charcoal sellers and distributors, the same cannot be said of briquettes, it is very common to find an entire town without a briquette selling point and this scarcity forces users to stick to other fuels that are readily available. 

There is also the challenge of price, with briquettes many a time trading at a higher cost than charcoal and this, Ssenfuma says, puts off the would be customers.

“When existing cooking practices with charcoal are so ingrained like it is in Uganda, it is difficult for an unconventional fuel to compete unless the price is lower. Unfortunately, there is a government laxity in providing incentives and a failure to create favourable conditions for individuals to invest in biomass briquette energy production and utilization, as more players will no doubt bring the prices down,” says Ssenfuma. 

Way forward

There is need for an aggressive marketing campaign to promote the usage of briquettes. According to Ssenfuma, before the government comes in, individual manufacturers must aggressively find a way of promoting and marketing their products.

“Aggressive marketing remains an important factor in the initial stages of enterprise growth. And here, measures such as giving away free samples, product demonstrations and speaking to potential customers at markets about the benefits of briquettes can do wonders.  One of the key challenges is the low levels of awareness about briquettes and if it is increased amongst household consumers, demand can grow steadily,” he says.

He further calls on the government to come up with a deliberate policy to support the briquettes manufacturing sector. “If we are really serious about saving the environment, starting with our forests, let the government come up with a policy outlawing the usage of charcoal and firewood in factories and institutions, where by it is compulsory for factories to use only briquettes with very big penalties imposed on industries found using firewood because factories and institutions are the biggest users of firewood,” says Senfuma.

According to Ssenfuma, briquettes is the only alternative fuel that can ably and realistically displace charcoal and firewood as the number one source of cooking fuel.

“It is cheap and can be everywhere if supported by the government. Support can be in form of incentives like tax free equipment, countrywide free distribution of briquettes compatible energy cooking stoves, massive sensitization on the benefits of using briquettes as well as free trainings in briquettes making so that more people can manufacture them subsequently making them accessible everywhere.”

Make your own briquettes

There are a variety of briquette types on the market. Some are made from ingredients that require machines and others can easily be made from home. Diana Nantege who makes her own briquettes uses charcoal dust, anthill soil and water.  Anthill soil or clay helps to keep heat for longer periods.

Get the soil and mix it with charcoal dust in equal ratios, add water and after start rolling the briquette balls in your hands. The size will depend on how you want them and the size of the stoves.

Dry them under the sun and ensure that they are completely dry before using using them. For maximum efficiency, it is better to use them concurrently with charcoal.