From Nuisance to Renewable Energy: An Entrepreneur Remakes Charcoal

As Zimbabwe struggles with power outages and high electricity costs, one business offers a cheaper, almost smoke-free alternative to traditional charcoal. The product also could slow deforestation. All that from a weed.

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From Nuisance to Renewable Energy: An Entrepreneur Remakes Charcoal

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Takudzwa Choga shows a Lantana camara shrub at a farm in the mining area of Alaska, Zimbabwe. Choga uses the plant as the base for making environmentally-friendly charcoal.

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CHINHOYI, ZIMBABWE — Takudzwa Choga walks through a muddy field eyeing piles of shrubs he cut down the week before, trying to decide if he has enough to fill a truck. For the landowner, the plant is a troublesome weed. For Choga, it’s the raw material of what he hopes will be a renewable energy revolution.

Choga uses this flowering shrub, Lantana camara, to make charcoal that’s cheaper than the traditional product and that could help slow deforestation in Zimbabwe.

At a time when power cuts leave Zimbabweans in the dark for hours and electricity costs are skyrocketing, Choga’s charcoal provides an alternative to using more gas or firewood. He’s also helping clear out an invasive species that often overtakes valuable grazing land and prevents tree growth.

Choga’s charcoal business highlights the way some African entrepreneurs are using issues of aging infrastructure and rampant environmental degradation as impetus to create novel, profitable solutions.

Zimbabwe has instituted a lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus, making it more difficult for Choga to collect raw materials and deliver products. He has had to cut two of his four employees and decrease production by more than half to 25 kilograms (55 pounds) a day.

But demand is still high. More than 60% of Zimbabweans cook using fuel such as wood, sawdust, crop waste or charcoal made from these products, according to a government report. Those who do use electricity depend on an aging power grid that can’t meet demand. A dependence on fossil fuels for power plants also leads to pollution and deforestation.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Takudzwa Choga displays corncobs that he has fired in a kiln and will use to make charcoal briquettes.

Zimbabwe loses more than 300,000 hectares of forest a year, says Violet Makota, a spokesperson for the government’s Forestry Commission.

Lantana, called rukato in the local Shona language, was introduced to the country decades ago from South America as an ornamental flower, prized for its yellow and pink blossoms. But then it started taking over fields. The government categorizes it as an “invasive alien species,” which means landowners are required by law to clear it from their land.

“I grew up on a farm, and I experienced a lot of deforestation, so it has always been at the back of my mind to start something that could solve that problem,” says Choga, 29, who studied information technology in college.

He got the idea to use lantana after reading online about people in the Philippines making charcoal from coconut husks. He experimented with formulas for a few months before he found a workable product.

Unknown to Choga, others in Africa have been conducting similar experiments. A 2017 study on the use of lantana-based charcoal briquettes in Ethiopia found they are virtually smoke-free and create “minimal indoor air pollution.” The briquettes also met several criteria for good quality charcoal as set by the United Nations, according to the study.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Takudzwa Choga molds powdered corncobs with starch binders. Choga’s environmentally-friendly charcoal sells for less than traditional charcoal.

Choga’s manufacturing process is more complicated than making charcoal from trees. He fires Lantana camara twigs in a kiln, then mixes them with binders and presses the resulting sludge into briquettes that have to dry in the sun for five days. He uses a similar process to make briquettes from corncobs left over after harvest season.

But his low costs mean he can charge far less than sellers of traditional charcoal, which is almost entirely imported. It’s illegal in Zimbabwe to produce charcoal from indigenous trees.

When he sells directly to consumers, Choga charges 57 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) a kilogram (about $.70 for around 2 pounds), whereas traditional charcoal costs 82 ZWL ($1) a kilogram.

Choga says he has tested his charcoal against traditional briquettes and found his puts off the same amount of heat but lasts about three hours instead of one.

Trust Chivasa, a scientist at a medical laboratory in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, says using Choga’s briquettes means he now has to buy only 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of gas each month, instead of the 20 kilograms he bought previously.

“I now use these briquettes when there is no electricity, and I now spend less money than what I used to before,” he says.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Charcoal briquettes lie in a tray where they will dry before being packaged. Takudzwa Choga’s business uses an invasive shrub and corncobs to make charcoal.

Competitors don’t sound worried. Kudakwashe Yobe, a roadside charcoal seller in Harare, says he hasn’t heard about Choga’s briquettes and doesn’t believe they would be a threat to his business.

“They are a new product which people don’t know, and I think people will prefer to use the traditional charcoal which they are used to,” he says.

It’s also unclear whether Choga’s briquettes can do much about the country’s widespread electricity issues. Tobias Mudzingwa, a renewable energy engineer, says while Choga’s briquettes have potential, they are used only for cooking and aren’t enough to significantly reduce the problem of power shortages.

“Power challenges can only be addressed once these briquettes are produced in large volumes and can be used to generate electricity,” he says.

That type of scale may be unreachable, but Choga is saving up to expand operations and move into a factory. He wants to target new markets such as tobacco farmers who use firewood to cure their crops.

Choga’s business didn’t always look like it would take off. His sister, Nyashadzashe Choga, says their mother thought he was just wasting time.

“If he had listened to people here,” she says, “he would not have achieved it.”

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is an internationally acclaimed economy and education reporter.

Translation Note

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.

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