Conversion of Typha Grass in to Charcoal: Lessons from Senegal and Gambia

by DEPO ADENLE

Typha grass has apparently earned a bad name in the Komadugu-Yobe basin in Nigeria as could be seen in what Dr. A. I. Tanko wrote in the FMWR-IUCN-NCF Komadugu Yobe Basin Project Mid-Term Project Evaluation Report of 2007:  “There is an invasive spread of typha grass which, by now, has not shown any potential economic or social value. Its presence is causing tremendous drop in the potentials of agricultural land in the basin…

…It has also been found that floods are caused significantly due to the presence

of the typha grass, which also leads to lower water/river discharges in the

natural river courses.”

Steve Klaber’s comments  on this blog on How Yobe fights eco challenges as EU, FG end funding of NEAZDP,   https://weircentreforafrica.com/2012/04/16/how-yobe-fights-eco-challenges-as-eu-fg-end-funding-of-neazdp-2/,  on the other hand notes that “The Typha grass infestation is the driving force in these troubles. They are dessication machines and the silt that they generate clogs the stream and lake beds, so that the surface water and the underground water are out of supportive contact. When Typha grows in clean water and soil, it is an excellent food plant. But it will clean your waters for you, and collect any toxins in it. It is safer to make it into fuel, by any of several methods. If we weed and dredge Lake Chad and its tributaries, the lake will again replenish the ground water on which the Oases and boreholes depend, and will again generate the “lake effect” rains that are the main method of cooling the earth.”

Klaber’s optimistic conclusions about replenishment of Lake Chad through weeding and  dredging need to be subjected to scientific peer review.

However, the article below on the work of an environmental NGO shows that  typha grass has its economic uses as well as what Klaber describes as its other positive attributes.

The North East Arid Zone Development Programme (NEAZDP) should possibly review the article below and looks at what works in Senegal.

Typha grass – also known as Reed-mace, Cat-tail and Kachalla – is a problematic weed in some major African river systems. In The Gambia, the National Agricultural Research Institute has developed a simple pressing machine which can be used to convert the thick-stemmed grass into charcoal blocks. These are a very efficient source of fuel compared to normal charcoal, and making the blocks has now become a valuable employment opportunity for young people in the area in addition to saving the burning of trees.

A lot has been said about wood cutting being one of the factors responsible for desertification in the Sahel part of Nigeria which has even resulted in 11 states organizing a summit. It may be necessary for the eleven states to evaluate the success of the projects on economic use of typha grass in other Sahel countries in West Africa.

SENEGAL: Can “green charcoal” help save the trees?

 charcoal displays

Photo: Pierre Holtz

Charcoal is one of the most common household fuels across West Africa (file photo)

ROSS-BETHIO, 20 April 2009 (IRIN) – An environmental NGO in northern Senegal is about to go to market with “green charcoal” – a household fuel produced from agricultural waste materials to replace wood and charcoal in cooking stoves.

Given that Senegal’s trees are disappearing, finding viable alternatives is a must, a Ministry of Energy official says. At least half of Senegal’s 13 million people rely on wood and charcoal for household fuel, while 40 percent relying on petrol products like butane gas, the ministry says.

“You need to cut down 5kg of wood to produce only 1kg of [conventional] charcoal,” said Ibrahima Niang, alternative household energies specialist at the Energy Ministry.

“Less than 30 years ago, charcoal consumed in [the capital] Dakar came from 70km away, from the Thiès region. Now you have to go 400km from Dakar to find forests.”

According to Senegal’s Department of Water and Forestry, 40,000 hectares of forest are cut every year for fuel and other commercial uses.

Deforestation is said to exacerbate soil erosion – already a considerable problem in parts of Senegal. The country is part of the Sahel, a region where erratic rainfall, land degradation and desertification are constant challenges for a population largely dependent on agriculture and livestock.

The “green charcoal” is produced by compressing agricultural waste, like the invasive typha weed, into briquets and then carbonising them using a machine. The product has the look and feel of traditional charcoal and burns similarly.

“The technology is efficient, effective and economical because we can produce a substitute for charcoal at half the price,” Guy Reinaud, director of Pro Natura International, the French NGO that has partnered with the Senegalese government on the green charcoal project. The project is based in Ross-Bethio, a town 300km north of Dakar in the Saint-Louis region.

Environmental firms and governments have long been working to transform plants and natural waste materials into energy, such as water lilies in the Philippines.

Tough sell?

Despite the apparent advantages marketing the green charcoal in Senegal is a challenge, according to Mireille Ehemba, specialist in alternative household fuels at PERACOD, a Senegalese-German renewable energy initiative that is also a partner in the green charcoal project.

…Now you have to go 400km from Dakar to find forests…

“We have not been able to penetrate the charcoal market in urban areas. People are very attached to charcoal,” Ehemba told IRIN. “Much more [education] is needed, including cooking demonstrations that explain how this new fuel works, if we want people to make the switch.”

Not only buyers need to be convinced. Identifying distribution networks and responding to the needs of charcoal vendors are also major challenges, Ehemba said. For 1kg of green charcoal, a vendor receives 5 US cents, whereas conventional charcoal brings in almost 20 cents per kilogram.

“We must talk to producers to get them to increase the scale of their operation in order to increase the profit for vendors if this is to work.”

Affordable

Senegalese consumers may be tempted to switch to the new product because it is cheaper than charcoal and butane gas. One kilogram of green charcoal sells for just 20 cents, whereas traditional charcoal currently costs three times that. A 6-kg bottle of butane gas costs about $5.

Fatou Camara, 40, from Ross-Bethio, has tested the new fuel when cooking for her family of 10. “I can use 1kg of green charcoal and that will cook the dinner. It is cheaper than normal charcoal.”

Camara told IRIN she used to use butane gas for cooking, but recurrent gas shortages pushed her to switch to green charcoal.

In the past, butane gas was heavily subsidised and promoted by the government as an alternative to charcoal. But such measures are no longer sustainable, according to the Energy Ministry’s Niang. The government plans to phase out butane subsidies in July.

PERACOD’s Ehemba is concerned the move will put more pressure on Senegal’s forests as poorer households return to traditional fuels like charcoal. “It is now very important that we propose alternatives like improved stoves and bio-charcoal so that people have affordable ways to cook cleanly,” she said.

ProNatura and the Senegalese government plan to turn the project into a profit-making venture called “Green Charcoal Senegal” that will produce up to 800 tons of the green fuel a year for sale in the Saint-Louis region.

ProNatura will soon start a project in Mali, transforming cotton stems into green charcoal, and plans similar projects in Niger, Madagascar, China, India and Brazil.

“It has global potential in terms of its adaptability to different local environments, and it uses local waste materials,” said Reinaud.

The Energy Ministry’s Niang said: “It is not possible to completely replace charcoal [in Senegal]. But even if we can replace 10 or 15 percent [of it] that is good. It will preserve the forests.”

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4 responses to “Conversion of Typha Grass in to Charcoal: Lessons from Senegal and Gambia

  1. I want to find out if the Typha grass is also known as Reeds. If the answer is yes, Reeds has been used in constructed wetland settings to remove pathogens and clarify wastewater at experimental and pilot level at the University of Ibadan as one of the strategies to abate Eutrophication of Agodi Lake. Now, the naivity of some of our reports has been exposed since the same grass that was labbeled as “useless” has economic value that is been explored in neighbouring countries. If a useful and economic value has been devised for this plant, then we can as well key into it and possibly contribute this as charcoal to stem somehow climate change and its attendant desertification in Northern Nigeria.

    • Thanks, Mr. Femi Aluko. Wikipedia notes that typha grass is also known as reed-mace, cat-tail and kachalla. Wikipedia also notes that “Typha plants grow along lake margins and in marshes, often in dense colonies, and are sometimes considered a weed in managed wetlands. The plant’s root systems help prevent erosion, and the plants themselves are often home to many insects, birds and amphibians.” It would be of interest to many to learn a little bit more about pilot project at the University of Ibadan.

  2. At present , Nigerian Conservation Foundation through a project called Living on the Edge is assisting communities by providing fund to communities around Nguru lake to clear the blocked waterways called by Thypha. We have also empowered with a machine that convert typha into briquettes.

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