Sustainable charcoal: Is that possible?


Eastern Timbers Youth Group

Members of the Eastern Timbers, Sustainable charcoal project

Originally posted on The #Forests 2015 Blog

“For many persons the concept of charcoal and sustainability is a contradiction. However we have been able to develop a method to do just that” said Kurt Harris, SLAFY representative.

The St. Lucia Agricultural Forum for Youth (SLAFY) is a part of the Caribbean Agriculture Forum for Youth (CAFY). As a larger Caribbean initiative, CAFY was set up to encourage greater youth participation in agriculture. It’s meant to be the youth voice in the field for the region with chapters throughout the islands.

SLAFY as part of its mandate seeks to assist its members in developing and participating in agriculture, be it through agribusiness, training, policy making and consultancy.

The Eastern Timbers proposal, managed by SLAFY, was successful in gaining grant funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and is well on its way to establish full sustainability. Kurt tells us more:

Keron: So can you give me an overview of the Eastern Timbers project, turned business?

Kurt: The primary input in charcoal is wood, namely lumber, a tree like any other that can grow and grow and grow again. We have been able to design a system whereby not only do we harvest trees in a sustainable manner but we also replant trees.

Whatever we use, we put back.

We also design our project around the used of proper forest management techniques. We practice thinning, which is a selective pruning  process or reducing the number and thickness of the tree branches. This is our major input.

We also utilize loosened trees such as those hanging over electric lines or those to be removed for construction purposes. We do not promote the cutting down of enter slopes.

To make our charcoal we use a special designed kiln that uses a retort method where the gases produced from the burning process are ignited causing the conversion from wood to charcoal to occur at a much more rapid rate.

The kiln also allows us to harvest other particles that normally would have been considered waste in other types of charcoal production such as dust and utilize it for another products which can be used as a soil additive. We have basically marketed it as ‘slash and burn in a bag’ This means that rather than enacting upon such a negative practice, farmers can simply use this product to improve the PH levels of their soil.

Currently we are at the stage where we seek to utilize the smoke that is exhausted from the kiln. Within this waste there are chemicals which can be used for industrial cleaners as well as wood preservatives. So we are attempting to turn one of the biggest nuisances of charcoal production into another product input.

We also got access to a mobile saw mill where we can convert larger trees into lumber for other traditional products. So we are striving for and have almost achieved a system where there is zero waste or negative environmental impact.

Keron: Very interesting. So the immediate direct product is the charcoal?

Kurt: Yes and more. We have lump charcoal, we have biochar, there’s mulch, lumber boards of different sizes and then activated charcoal but not of a medical grade.

Sustainable Charcoal from Eastern Timbers

Some of the Charcoal products from Eastern Timbers

Keron: What is activated charcoal?

Kurt: Activated refers to smaller pieces of charcoal that are exposed to a much higher temperature. This allows the pores of the charcoal to open up much wider enabling it to absorb impurities a lot better. It can then be used as a slow cooker but also as part of a filtration process for grey water.

Grey water is the run off from a household’s water usage specifically in the kitchen and from laundry. Some persons use this water in their gardens.

However with our activated charcoal this grey water can be filtered improving its quality dramatically before being fed to garden plants. This then improves health of the plants and humans being the consumers of aforementioned, in the long run.

Keron: Now I know you are among SLAFY’s senior members and we spoke prior about members moving from young to recently young and beyond. In light of this the group has a particular business model that is meant to be sustainable, correct?

Kurt: Definitely. Eastern Timbers is the grouping of young persons for whom SLAFY has written the proposal, got funds for and is assisting in managing the business. As an NGO with no subventions or other income we have realized that we need to have a sustainability model. Therefore 5% of  profits coming out of Eastern Timbers goes to SLAFY who in turn assists another group of agriyouth with a different project. The idea is to repeat this process to increase the income pool of SLAFY and ensure the organisation is able to properly operate and to ensure continuity of SLAFY itself.

Keron: Tell me more about this kiln technology.

Kurt: Well we thought in order to garner the interest of the younger persons and to hold their attention we would need to research and up to date practice. The traditional kiln which involves building a structure over a pit is not sexy or attractive in any way. We were able to buy a patent for a kiln technology that a German researcher had developed.

We then further modified the kiln in order to reduce the cost of maintenance of the kiln itself and suit the local environment. In doing so we have reduced the time to produce charcoal by 60% and increased production by 33%.

This experimentation and tinkering acted as an incentive to the agriyouth.

Lastly wen shared these adaptations with the researcher as part of our agreement to utilize the technology. In doing so others are able to benefit.

Keron: Thanks much for the chat Kurt, i think the projects is quite innovative and going places!

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