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Haiti: A char briquette entrepreneur’s perspective

This blog post was first published on the website of the Harvest Fuel Initiative.

“Our approach is not to disrupt traditions.  If people don’t want to change from charcoal, then as an outsider you won’t be able to convince them.  As a cheaper, “drop-in” replacement for traditional charcoal, green charcoal is an elegant compromise,” says Haiti-based social entrepreneur, Eric Sorensen

“Our approach is not to disrupt traditions.  If people don’t want to change from charcoal, then as an outsider you won’t be able to convince them.  As a cheaper, “drop-in” replacement for traditional charcoal, green charcoal is an elegant compromise,” says Haiti-based social entrepreneur, Eric Sorensen

Briquettes in Stove small

And now onto Haiti.

We’ve long been interested in the situation on the ground given the country’s heavy dependence on charcoal. The country’s high levels of charcoal consumption have had a negative impact on the nation’s forest cover and the agricultural communities that depend on the fertile soil for their livelihood.  For the urban populations, the country’s diminishing forest cover can lead to spikes in the price of charcoal, which in turn pushes the most vulnerable communities into deeper poverty.

Three-and-half years after suffering a devastating earthquake, we’ve been anxious to see what impact billions in aid has had in addressing the country’s energy poverty needs.

eric-headshot

Eric Sorensen

One final note: we hope this new series will help foster an open and collegial discussion among entrepreneurs around the world. This is one of the principal goals of this website. In fact, one challenge Eric is facing is with the briquetting technology, especially when it comes to finding a suitable binder. That’s because while cassava flour is plentiful and relatively inexpensive in parts of Africa where it is used as binder, there is no comparable, affordable equivalent. Tune in to the Forum section of HFI to follow up on the binder discussion.

1. Give us  quick overview of your project and model.

Carbon Roots International manages an enterprise in northern Haiti that produces green charcoal briquettes and biochar for the soil.  Our model employs a disbursed network of char producers to convert agricultural waste to char, which we then purchase from them, while the creation of our end-products is centralized at a production center.

Papaya contrast

2. Contextualize it for us. What’s the situation with charcoal and biomass energy in Haiti? What’s happened there since the earthquake? What does charcoal cost? What types of stoves to people use? Where does the charcoal come from?

Haiti is over 98% deforested, and 94% percent of people rely on solid fuels as their primary energy source.  Clearly, there is a charcoal problem in this country—it fuels the deforestation, which results in a domino effect of social and economic ruin.  Erosion triggers flooding, decreased arable land, declining crop yields, and depressed incomes, which just reinforces reliance on polluting, tree-consuming charcoal.  This problem is well-known in Haiti, yet attempts to address it have enjoyed little success.  The same proportion of the population uses charcoal as did a generation ago.  The earthquake in 2010 brought more money and attention to Haiti, but, in my opinion, it hasn’t been successful at producing appropriate models for addressing the charcoal problem.

The most common method currently adopted by development organizations to address deforestation and fuel issues in Haiti are clean cookstoves.  While this is an effective tool in regions where households are able to invest in new technology, for most people in Haiti $15-$50 new stove is beyond their price range. In a similar vein, briquettes produced from compacting paper waste in urban areas are a popular source of unique fuel and a method of addressing garbage buildup in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. However, these require new specialized stoves to properly combust these non-charcoal briquettes. This means households still need to invest in new equipment.  But perhaps the most significant barrier to adoption is cultural.  I don’t know how many millions (billions?) of dollars have been spent on changing cooking habits in Haiti, but it’s safe to say A LOT of time, effort, and money has gone toward convincing Haitians to abandon their traditional cooking methods.  While there have been some modest successes, I think overall these efforts have failed their mission.  All over the country, I’ve seen new, highly-touted stoves sitting idle, or being used as stools, while cooks continue to make food over traditional metal-pan stoves or open fires.  

Our approach is not to disrupt traditions.  If people don’t want to change from charcoal, then as an outsider you won’t be able to convince them.  As a cheaper, “drop-in” replacement for traditional charcoal, green charcoal is an elegant compromise.

3. Tell us a bit more about your project and its human/poverty alleviation dimension. How many people do you employ? How many people are currently or will be impacted by your project?

We spent a year and a half in central Haiti, in a remote valley completely cut off from what’s sometimes referred to in Haiti as the “NGO Industrial Complex”, talking to smallholder farmers, learning the culture, and developing technology.  We had almost no funds so everything had to be cheap and local, and it was the best education about what will and won’t work in Haiti, and perhaps the rest of the developing world.  During that time we were primarily focused on biochar for the soil. But came to understand that we couldn’t sustainably improve soil health without addressing its biggest threat: charcoal fuel consumption.  This was our proverbial “ah hah!” moment.  

IMG_9027
The secret to briquettes? Make them better, longer, cleaner, and cheaper than charcoal.

4. What’s your financing window? Is this for profit? Non-profit? Do you get funding from capital markets?

Carbon Roots International is a nonprofit organization, but our project here in Haiti is market-based and is expected to make profit, which will be reinvested in project growth.  Our funding inevitably began with family and friends, but has transitioned to mostly grants during the past 16 months.  Some of our supporters are Halloran Philanthropies, USAID, the UN Mission in Haiti, and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business where this year we placed second in the Global Social Venture Challenge.

5. What about the technology? You make char from biomass and then convert it into briquettes. Can you tell us about those two technologies? What do you use for a binder?

We train and equip our producers with basic TLUD kilns made from 55-gallon barrels.  We source materials locally and our team builds them by hand.  We’ve found this to be the most versatile and appropriate technology for converting organic biomass into charcoal in Haiti.

Our briquette technology is continually being improved, but is based on mechanical jack presses.

We use a local starch as a binder.  Cassava starch is not a staple food product in Haiti, and it  is much less common and more expensive than in Africa.  

6. What have been the greatest challenges in getting the project off the ground?

First and foremost: funding.

IMG_0735
Use 101 for a 55-gallon oil drum? A char-making kiln, of course.

7. What do you see as the challenge for scaling up?  What do you need most help with?

Briquette technology is a growing concern for us.  It is very difficult to get good metal work done in Haiti. It’s also extremely challenging to deal with the importing of equipment. 

We also are searching for, and experimenting with, other charring kiln designs that will convert hundreds of gallons of agricultural waste at a time.  

9. What are the challenges to replicating the model elsewhere in the country?

We currently source most of our feedstock from sugarcane bagasse, which is plentiful in Haiti.  Some regions of the country don’t grow sugarcane, so our supply chain model will have to be tweaked according to local value chains as we scale to those areas.

10. How have consumers responded to the briquette product? Do they like it?

IMG_8904
This briquette-making press is probably one of a kind.

When I talk with Americans about green charcoal, it often takes longer than I anticipate to communicate the impact and need for an appropriate alternative to wood-based charcoal fuel.  In contrast, every Haitian I’ve met almost instantly understands the implications of green charcoal, and most ask how they can get involved.  Haitians know what the drivers of deforestation are, and they live with the effects.  An environmental argument isn’t lost on our target population, and we’re encountering a lot of enthusiasm for what we offer.

All photos courtesy of Eric Sorensen.


One Comment

  1. Pingback:Haiti: A char briquette entrepreneur’s perspective : One Percent for the Planet

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