Biomass Briquettes—Making Something from Nothing Part II

> Posted by Paul Rippey


Biomass Briquettes

I recently returned from a quick stopover in Uganda – just four days – to follow up on the progress of the briquette making initiative there. For those of you who have been following the work of the Center’s Energy Links project to bring clean energy alternatives to developing countries, you’ll remember that in March of this year we sponsored a training session in Uganda on how to make and market biomass briquettes. We had contracted with the Legacy Foundation to train 25 members and clients of UWESO (Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans), and we stressed the importance of participants passing on the simple technology to other people.
My visit to Uganda had three purposes: first, to follow up on the participants and their activities and do some photo documentation; a second was to put the dots on the I’s of an MOU with UWESO to support and report on the project; and finally, to promote the use of a kind of briquette press called the “Peterson Press”, a refinement of existing presses that promises to have a substantially lower acquisition cost.

John Patrick Kashaki (holding papers) looks at the production of one of the people he trained

John Patrick Kashaki (holding papers) looks at the production of one of the people he trained

While I was there, I went out west to Bushenyi with Bosco Epila, program manager and acting program director for UWESO. Bosco has done an outstanding job promoting Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) at UWESO, and was our host for the briquette training In March. Bushenyi is one of the regions that has been the most active in briquetting since the March training, something that seems due to the interest and work of John Patrick Kashaki, a community-based trainer for Village Savings and Loan Associations who clearly saw the value of briquette making.
When John Patrick returned to his site after the March training, he went to a local carpenter and together they fabricated an inexpensive wooden press relying simply on hand power to compress the briquettes. He urged his VSLA members to gather materials, and then made the rounds of the groups, carrying his press, and leading them through practical demonstrations of briquette manufacturing. To date, John Patrick has trained over 200 people in briquette making. A number of the groups purchased or made their own presses out of wood or metal – one group had a metal worker as a member who made one for the group out of scrap metal.
Despite this training and enthusiasm, many of the producers we visited thought that production was low compared to what it could be. The reasons varied, but in general, the constraint seems to be more marketing than production. The price of charcoal – the competition! – is seasonal, but right now it is low. Somewhere, people got the idea that a briquette should sell for 100 shillings. Our observation was that that seemed too high, given the low cost of charcoal – 300 shillings for a bag that could, just, last all day. In other seasons the price is said to go up substantially.
However, since the cost of materials for making briquettes is usually zero, and the cost of labor is not high, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that briquette making could be a good enterprise even if the briquettes were sold at 50 shillings, or 5 for 300.
Another challenge is storage and consolidation. Several people expressed the desire to pool production in one place. They say it is inefficient to sell odd lots. John Patrick has located a storeroom where briquettes can be kept, and either transshipped or sold.
We’re very excited by the strong start of this new product, and we expect production volume and quality to increase once people get the courage to invest the $30-40 it will take for an improved press. Over the coming months, Bosco and I are going to follow progress, and see if our assumptions about the business model are correct. But, that’s all part of these pilots—experimenting, seeing how activities play out, and then adjusting the model. Stay tuned…