Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones: making charcoal out of bamboo in DR Congo

Published: Aug 4, 2023 Reading time: 4 minutes
Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones: making charcoal out of bamboo in DR Congo
© Foto: Tereza Hronova, Zawadi Izabayo

South Kivu, a province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, faces a number of challenges, including deforestation caused by logging for cooking wood. For this reason, we started testing a sustainable alternative: charcoal production from bamboo. Bamboo is a local plant that grows quickly and can be harvested repeatedly, plus its roots strengthen soil that is easily eroded, and bamboo charcoal has a high calorific value, making it simple and cheap to produce.

The province of South Kivu is part of the vast Congo Basin, which contains the second-largest rainforest in the world. Preserving the Congolese rainforest is in the interest of the whole world as it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, produces oxygen, contributes to the natural water cycle and is home to a huge variety of plants and animals.

Fortunately, there is currently no massive commercial logging in South Kivu, however, the forest is nevertheless receding due to clearing by the local population, who need to use the wood to cook and keep warm.

"It is very difficult for us to get heating. I can't afford to buy charcoal often because it is expensive, so I go to collect wood for cooking. We go to the forest and cut wood, which we then burn. We do this because we have no other option, but this project will allow us to make charcoal from bamboo in the future and we won't have to cut down any more trees," explains Florance Kubonaga.

Bukavu is a regional capital with a population of over one million. The population of the entire province of South Kivu was estimated to be 5.8 million in 2015. If at least 90 % of them use hardwood charcoal for cooking, this means that continuous deforestation will soon have devastating effects on all of them over time. Already, after a two-to-four-hour drive from Bukavu, you are surrounded by grassy hills that used to be covered in forest.

In DR Congo, given the dire security and economic situation, it is not currently feasible to replace charcoal with renewable energy sources such as hydro or solar power. This makes the innovation of replacing hardwood charcoal with bamboo charcoal, a solution that is both practical and financially feasible, so paramount.

Florance, was involved in the planting, underscores this idea: "We planted the bamboo plants under the road because it’s on a very steep slope. This road also helps us trade with the town of Bukavu. That is why we wanted to plant them because they are the future.”

Bamboo has a very short harvest cycle because it grows quickly, and bamboo charcoal has similar properties to charcoal - excellent calorific value and combustion properties. In addition, bamboo occurs naturally in the local environment, so there are no risks associated with introducing a new plant species into this ecosystem.

Bamboo does not cause further deforestation, on the contrary, it contributes to the reforestation of already deforested areas prone to erosion. Especially along roads in remote hilly areas, it is common for parts of the road or the entire hillside to be washed away during the rainy season. When this happens, it is especially harmful socially because it cuts local people off from access to nearby markets, health care systems and other vital services. The root systems of the bamboo we plant on the hillside below the roads will make the soil firmer.

We have already planted hundreds of bamboo seedlings that are growing vigorously. In the coming months we plan to build two bamboo charcoal kilns, train charcoal sellers on the properties of bamboo charcoal and set up a collaboration with a local company, Kivu Briquettes, that has experience in producing alternative charcoal in urban settings.

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The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and one of the nations least prepared for it. Poverty levels are enormous here. The main contribution to economic development will come from encouraging private enterprise. We at People in Need want to contribute to solutions that are both climate-friendly and profitable for the local community. 

The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo has long faced a number of problems, including more than 25 years of armed conflict between dozens of militia groups fighting for control of mines with scarce resources, natural disasters (such as flooding and frequent landslides), and epidemics of diseases such as measles, cholera and even the deadly Ebola virus. Half of the region's children suffer from malnutrition.

We have been helping in the area for 15 years. The focus of our activities is on the prevention and treatment of child malnutrition, and, due to our long-term knowledge of the region and the needs on the ground, supporting the continued development of small development projects, such as the planting of bamboo.

The creation of the video was supported by the European Union-funded project 1Planet4All.

Autor: Adriana Černá

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