The Other Side of Charcoal Briquettes

Written by: 
Sydona Nazze


The need to conserve the environment and earn a living is propelling production of charcoal briquettes as one of the most common sources of energy in Uganda.

A number of families have acquired skills in making briquettes from solid waste which has improved their income status. Charcoal briquettes are produced for both home use and as a business.

Many have adopted using them saying that they provide long- lasting smokeless fire. They view briquettes are an alternative and cheap fuel source as they are composed of organic household waste such as peanut shells, charcoal dust, banana peelings and other waste. They are compressed by hand into small dense products that can be used instead of charcoal and excess amount of wood harvested from forests.

But a health expert has warned that briquettes may not be as safe as many think they are.

The other side of briquettes

Dr. Lawrence Atuhaire, who works with A Rocha Uganda, explains the side effects of briquettes on people's health especially those who make and use them for cooking saying that they may be affected.

"Briquettes can produce sooty dust and fumes that irritate the lungs and contribute to respiratory problems for individuals with allergies or asthma," he warned.

Dr. Atuhaire encourages people with asthma and allergies not to use briquettes in order to avoid such problems. "Some charcoal briquettes are soaked in lighter fluid which can act as an additional irritant; they can result into poisoning, unconsciousness or even death. Since they don't emit smoke, there is no visual signal to warn of the carbon monoxide danger.”

Making briquettes

Annet Nabatta, a resident of Bulenga Kikaaya Zone in Wakiso District, says that she had for so long been interested in Briquette making but had not known how and where to learn about it. Fortunately, she got a chance from A Rocha Uganda which organised a workshop that she attended.

A Rocha Uganda is an international conservation organisation that has been sensitising and training people living in slum communities on clean water and sanitation, better personal hygiene practices, skills for urban gardening, and rubbish clean-up and recycling.

Nabatta says that she gained knowledge of making briquettes and it was a huge breakthrough for her.

"After gaining the knowledge from A Rocha Uganda on how to make briquettes, I discovered that they can be more than the charcoal I used to burn. They are 100% longer than this normal charcoal and they provide long lasting smokeless fire," she said.

Nabatta adds on that when she acquired the skills and knowledge, she got plans to start her own business of selling charcoal so that she can use the leftover waste of charcoal dust to make briquettes to use in her home and sell to neighbours.

"I got a plan in my head, then thought of selling charcoal so that I can get raw- materials to make briquettes. I can now use charcoal waste commonly known as olusennyente to make briquittes," she explained.

The process

She says she uses charcoal dust and a binding material that can stick together with her charcoal to make briquettes.

"I use charcoal dust and get a binding material like starch such as, maize flour or wheat flour and cow dung. At times I use cassava flour so anything that is in form of flour can be used because it sticks with that dust to make good round briquette," Nabatta added.

She adds: "I put hot water to form a thick paste that can stick the charcoal dust together. In simple terms I use flour to make porridge like thing then use it to stick the charcoal dust or fines together.”

Three benefits in one

Proscovia Ikalany, an entrepreneur believes that her fuel briquette- making enterprise can generate income, help families to save money, protect the environment and save families from the hazardous exposure to other fuels.

Ikalany notes that fuel briquettes reduce the high demand for unsustainably harvested wood and charcoal.

"Fuel briquettes can provide income, protect the environment and improve public health," she said

Ikalany explains how she makes briquettes and says that she uses paper around her home and neighbourhood and scraps them into small pieces. She then soaks them for two to three days in a bucket of water. "This will allow them to soften and also release fibres from the papers which act as a binding agent for briquettes," she explains.

She adds: "After two days have passed, I use my hands to squeeze the paper until I get porridge- like mixture."

She notes that the amount of time spent depends on how much paper she is using.

From there she brings other materials. "I then mix organic materials like sawdust with the paper to make briquittes. I mix one part of soaked paper with three parts of the organic material with small amount of water, I mix into the paper using hands. I keep on adding water until the mixture becomes easily moldable. Finally when I squeeze, the mixture holds together easily becoming a briquette," she explained.

She says that the briquette is then put in a convenient environment and  left to dry for three to seven days.

Ikalany reveals that her biggest challenge is lacking appropriate Briquette- making machines and as a result she molds the briquittes by hand.

"It gives me hard time because I do not have machines to make them; therefore I use my hands to mold them, which takes quite a lot of time. This slows down productivity and I produce them on a small scale," Ikalany narrated.

She looks forward to continue spreading charcoal briquettes throughout Uganda and adds that she is happy about being able to attract young women and some boys to work with her.

However she laments that while waste is potentially a resource, there is a lot of mismanagement through burning due to lack of skills for value addition.

Sylvia Ayebale, a resident of Busega sells charcoal but says that nowadays she rarely gets customers to buy from her as many make briquettes themselves for domestic use.

"In this area almost everyone knows how to make briquettes, my business is no longer having as many customers. Most have learnt making these briquettes claiming that they last longer than charcoal," she said.

But Dr Atuhaire says briquettes should never be used for cooking inside a home, house and tent; they must only be used outdoors.