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Briquette maker turns the heat on charcoal

Ponsiano Besesa displays a consignment of briquettes at his factory in Mubende District. COURTESY PHOTO

Conservationist starts venture to use up 65% of harvested trees that often goes to waste

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Uganda’s tropical high forests have been declining rapidly and conservationists have been relentless in sounding the alarm over their imminent disappearance in the next two decades unless something is done now.

Ponsiano Besesa, a veteran timber dealer-turned tree farmer has recently responded to the call by establishing a briquette making factory.

“People are yet to appreciate the advantage of briquettes but whoever uses my briquettes does not want to hear about firewood,” Besesa told visitors who had gathered at his factory during the International Day of Forests which is marked around the world on March 21 but was actually celebrated in Uganda on March 23.

This year’s International Day of Forests was celebrated under the theme, “Forests and sustainable production and consumption: Sustainable wood for people and planet.” That is why people like Besesa who are using wood in a sustainable manner featured prominently.

Besesa says briquettes should be embraced by Ugandan consumers because they produce five times more heat than charcoal and burn for a minimum of eight hours, meaning that a common person would save a lot.

“The briquettes save energy but also in the long run save the forests,” he said.

For firewood consuming factories, the choice of briquettes is even more economical. He hopes big firewood consumers like factories, schools, prisons, police and the army can start using briquettes to save the trees.

“Some people want these briquettes but they don’t have the capacity to establish the cooking stoves,” he says, “If there was a way these big organizations such as schools, prisons can be assisted to acquire the cooking stoves, we would go a long way in saving the environment.”

Besesa told visitors that he has been in the timber business for close to 45 years, starting in 1977, and he felt a moral responsibility to look after the environment.

Besesa conceived the briquette making factory idea after noticing that during tree harvesting, only 35% of the tree is utilized and the rest goes to waste. He says he had noticed that he was harvesting a lot of trees and leaving the hills bare and forests were being finished to produce charcoal, timber and firewood.

“We were only planting trees for timber because that is all we knew. But, as someone who is concerned about forest sustainability, I scratched my head and I said why can’t I add value to what I have been wasting and save some other trees?”

“That is how I went into briquette making so that when customers use my briquettes which I get fromtimber residue I was leaving in the forest, I would have saved thousands of trees from being cut.”

Besesa’s briquette dream

The briquette factory is located in Kyenda, a small town in the central-western district of Mubende which is about 150km west of Kampala.

The Shs3 billion factory comprises two lines that can produce at least five tonnes of briquettes per hour.  From his 1,200 hectare plantation of pine and Eucalyptus which he planted in 2004 in Kasana-Kasambya in Mubende District, not far away from the factory, he gets off-cuts and other “waste” off the harvested timber.

His workers who comprise mainly young energetic men push the collected waste closer to the nearby road from where they are easily picked and trucked to the factory.

These are fed into the crushing machine that turns the waste material into saw dust. The sawdust is quickly dried and compacted into grey longish briquettes and packaged into 50kg polyethylene bags ready for the market.

The plant which now has two production lines crushes about five tonnes per hour, according to Martin Birungi, the Production Manager at Besepo Uganda Ltd who is Besesa’s son.

The factory started making briquettes at the beginning of this year and it is already supplying Murchison Bay Prison, Kitalya Prison, Standard High School Zana and Gayaza High School says, Vianney Aryatusasira, the plantation manager.

Besesa told The Independent that the briquette venture took long to materialise because, “As a businessman I had to first do research.” He started by travelling to Kenya to study the briquette business.

“I made sure I travelled by road along with my sons. We made stops and interviewed tree farmers and other tree entrepreneurs.”

“But also, we did not have enough capital to set-up such a factory; so we had to look for funders and we succeeded by getting loans from the bank which enabled us set up the first line.” He also got a grant from FAO to set up the second production line.

Besesa’s new venture brings some hope to a country where biomass energy accounts for about 90% of the total primary energy consumed through firewood, charcoal and crop residues.

Conservationists say unsustainable charcoal production practices and technologies are major causes of deforestation and forest degradation. Demand for wood fuel (charcoal and firewood) is on the upward curve and is growing at an annual rate of 4.2% according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) figures.

The UN agency says access to clean energy alternatives is generally low-at only 2% of the total population while demand for charcoal is about 2.3 million tonnes annually.  At the moment, close to 65% of urban households rely on charcoal as their major source of energy.

Some foresters like Besesa say using sawdust to make consumable products like briquettes that are used for cooking, is one way of increasing the utilization of trees, avoiding waste, encouraging tree growing, significantly reducing the number of trees that are cut for firewood and charcoal, and stimulating growth and development in the forestry value chain.

Urgent needs remain

Dr. Antonio Querido, the FAO Country Representative in Uganda applauded Besesa’s initiative saying the venture could provide an opportunity for Ugandan foresters to use 90% of the tree. He said he had observed a lot of wastage when visiting a number of saw milling factories around Uganda.

Patience Namara, the country director of Fair Ventures Worldwide, an organization that engages in forest landscapes restoration in Uganda told The Independent on the sidelines of the celebrations that the Besesa’s initiative is a welcome idea in the country.

“The timber industry only takes a small percentage of a tree and then the rest is considered waste.  This (waste) remains largely unused or is sold off as firewood. But this kind of initiative puts an end to that as it puts the waste to something more useful not only for the timber producers but also for the environment.”

“The briquettes save energy but also in the long run save the forests. The more such initiatives are taken up by foresters, the more it will take Uganda a long way.”

But, Maria Hakansson, the Swedish ambassador to Uganda said there is urgent need to find ways of ensuring that these products are available in a more sustainable manner without further aiding the current high rates of forests particularly in the face of increased threats of climate change.

“Such innovations like the use of using forest waste for energy we have seen today can play an important role in achieving the objective,” she said in a speech read by Paul Asiimwe, the National Programme Officer at the Swedish Embassy in Kampala.

Besesa told The Independent that considering the fact that this is a new venture, briquettes are yet to be adopted by both Ugandan households and even industrialists.

He says factories that are using wood fuel should be outlawed. He says in Kenya, it is compulsory for factories to use only briquettes and there are very big penalties imposed on industries found using firewood because factories and institutions are the biggest users of firewood.

Going forward, Besesa says the only stumbling block that stands in the way of Ugandans embracing briquettes in their homes and factories is the need for special facilities like energy saving cooking stoves.

The schools, prisons, barracks don’t have facilities to use the briquettes. “Supporting these institutions to build energy saving stores would go a long way in weaning them off wood fuel. They would, therefore, need special facilities such huge energy saving stores to utilize well the briquettes,” he told The Independent.





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