Coconut waste used to replace charcoal in Cambodia

Sensemaking / Coconut waste used to replace charcoal in Cambodia

Coconut waste collected in Phnom Penh is being combined with coconut shells as an alternative to traditional charcoal for cooking.

By Renilde Becque / 11 Mar 2015

In Cambodia, charcoal waste from factories is being combined with coconut shells – purchased either from waste-pickers or directly from market vendors in Phnom Penh – to make biomass briquettes, sold at the same price as traditional charcoal for cooking. Up to 80% of Cambodian households use wood or charcoal as their main fuel source, resulting in a 100,000 tonnes of charcoal being used annually in the capital Phnom Penh alone. 

Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE), the company behind this low-emission alternative, was established by two locally operating NGOs and started producing char-briquettes from organic waste in late 2009. SGFE buys local biomass waste materials which would otherwise be dumped or burned. It uses them to produce ‘Premium’ briquettes, made from 5% coconut shell char and 95% char residues from wood-fired electricity generation and ‘Diamond’ briquettes, made from coconut char only.

The briquettes are sold to retailers, restaurants and food stalls, with the ‘Premium’ brand retailing at a similar price to traditional charcoal however excelling in performance and with no toxic air emissions. The ‘Diamond’ brand sells at a premium albeit is popular with low-income food vendors due to its long burn-time, ease of handling and storage, and the ability to extinguish the briquette at close of business for use again the next day.

SGFE’s coconut char is produced through pyrolysis. An improved kiln is used with minimal venting of toxic gases, a major environmental problem with traditional charcoal kilns. The briquettes have proven a real hit with local cooks, allowing SGFE to expand and install additional capacity in order to double monthly production and sales to at least 80 tonnes per month by end 2015 – equivalent to saving about 10,000 mature trees a year while cutting back on carbon and local air emissions.

By end-2014, SGFE company employed 25 staff, most of whom are from families who sort waste from rubbish dumps. It offers them above-average wages and a range of benefits, such as insurance and paid leave. In Phnom Penh, more than 1000 waste pickers work the city’s only landfill. An estimated 60-70% of Cambodia’s waste can be salvaged for reuse or recycling; in the absence of a formal waste diversion system, waste pickers play a vital role in closing the loop on the country’s resources. 

This year will also see SGFE joining efforts with NGOs GERES and SNV to provide a ‘bundled’ offer to customers of improved cookstoves with its char briquettes, as well as to pilot rice husk pellets as fuel. With ample availability of ‘waste feedstock’ for its briquettes, a competitive offer and a business model that delivers a triple bottom line win, SGFE is a promising example of sustainable use of natural capital among Southeast Asia’s rapidly developing economies. It was one of the winners of the 2014 Ashden Awards. 

Renilde Becque is an MBA candidate in Innovation, Enterprise and the Circular Economy at the University of Bradford.

Image Credit: Brian Jeffery Beggerly / Flickr

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