Can Quality Charcoal be produced in Informal Contexts?

The short answer, surprisingly, is Yes. The Avocado Vision and Inhlabathi teams have spent a lot of time studying the very successful charcoal producing models in Namibia, who have managed to deliver 120 000tons of FSC certified charcoal into European markets. Most of what sells overseas is Restaurant and Barbeque grade at decent prices. The typical charcoal production model has been large infrastructure and staff and forestry waste products transported to stockpiles and then baked in enormous ovens.

But Namibia, like us here in South Africa, has a huge environmental challenge in invasive plants that need to be removed in remote and inaccessible areas. For this reason, it’s not feasible, nor practical, to harvest raw biomass and transport it over long distances to a central processing plant. In order for the business plan to stand up, producers need to be able to beneficiate the raw biomass on site, and then transport the finished, value added product which is more compact and 75% lighter, to markets.

It seems that there may be over 1000 small charcoal producers in South Africa, all of whom swear by their own manufacturing technology. But what our team was seeking was charcoal making technology that has really good yields of higher grade charcoal, is portable enough for people to carry through the bush to ‘follow the biomass’, and with the lowest possible emissions. Also, it needs to be relatively cheap to manufacture or it will become inaccessible for small businesses to be able to set themselves up with.

We were delighted with the collaboration we were able to experience between the Namibian Charcoal Producers association facilitated by GIZ and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries where we were able to benefit from the trail and error innovation process that the Namibian producers have been through, and are currently piloting the Nam kiln, affectionately known as the Matatikiln in local lingo. It meets the criteria we were seeking, and, early tests have shown that it produces world class charcoal in really decent yields.

So although the context within which our charcoal producers operate may look rudimentary and informal, the charcoal they produce is world class restaurant grade. We are proud to be able to work towards being able to bring top quality charcoal to the world, produced by small scale producers who create employment in the poorest parts of our country.

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