Swapping Out Charcoal With Ethanol

Source: By JOANNA M. FOSTER, New York Times • Posted: Monday, May 21, 2012

Africa used to boast nearly three million square miles of forest, only about one-third of which remain today. The principal culprit is charcoal production for cookstove fuel, which emits soot that leads to endemic health problems.

The World Health Organization says the health consequences of cooking with charcoal parallel the effects of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Just imagine firing up a charcoal barbecue indoors every time you cooked.

This week, CleanStar Mozambique, a company formed by CleanStar Ventures and Novozymes, opened a biofuel plant to supply ethanol to the hundreds of thousands of households in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, that rely on charcoal for cooking.

The organizers are also working with rural farmers to help them shift from slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture and charcoal production to more modern farming methods that could result in far bigger food crops and the use of cleaner fuel. The push to supplant charcoal is also a big business opportunity: the charcoal market in sub-Saharan Africa is valued at more than $10 billion.

Charcoal prices in Maputo have doubled in the last three years as forests have dwindled. The average family spends about $30 a month on charcoal alone. While the price of ethanol is currently comparable, it is expected to hold constant as charcoal prices continue to rise.

The environmental wisdom of African biofuel projects has been called into question by those who fear that cassava, which will be used to produce the ethanol, will prove such a potentially lucrative crop that growers will clear carbon-rich forests to bring more land under cultivation.

But Thomas Nagy, executive vice president at Novozymes, says the program in Mozambique will only use land that had already been cleared to produce charcoal. The 500 or so farmers taking part are planting trees around their fields to prevent soil erosion and rehabilitating the soil by rotating nitrogen-fixing crops like beans and peas with the cassava.

What legumes they can’t eat, they sell to the cities, which have traditionally had to import food.

The first 3,000 cookstoves for burning ethanol, which sell for $30 each, have already sold out in Maputo. The cookstoves in the next shipment, expected to arrive in early June, are all spoken for as well. In the next few years, Mr. Nagy hopes that ethanol production will rise to 15 million liters annually from two million liters as more farmers sign up.

“There is great potential for biofuel in Africa,” he said. “We’re showing that the bio-based society we talk about in the West is not only for the large agricultural powerhouses of the world — it will perhaps have the most impact and greatest success in the least developed countries.”

The hope of organizers is that the project will be replicated in other areas with similar problems and potential.