Heaps of wasted coconut shells and husks are a common sight across the Coastal region. The eyesore was almost becoming an environmental hazard until it started evolving into a money-making industry. Now, neatly packaged in brown paper bags weighing one and two kilogrammes, coconut charcoal sells at Sh30 and Sh60 respectively.

Also referred to as coconut briquettes, the charcoal is manufactured from coconut waste materials like shells, husks (fibre) and leaves, which are carbonised using a pit burning method. The raw materials are burned in limited supply of air — sufficient only for carbonisation and not for complete destruction. Production machines Ramadhan Swaleh, a businessman cum entrepreneurship trainer has for seven years now been reaping handsomely from the enterprise. “When I started, I invested about Sh10,000 in buying a manual machine and I started slowly. Right now, I have grown and own two modern production machines which cost me Sh115,000 each, and own two factories in Kaloleni, Kilifi County and Waa in Kwale County,” he said.

Earning up to over Sh200,000 per month in sales and pocketing up to Sh100,000 in profit, his success cannot be overstated. “My family is now sustained entirely on it, I educate my children and all my other needs are supported by the business” he said. During processing, the briquettes are burnt to produce quality charcoal, where the carbonised waste material is crushed and mixed with portions of either sawdust, honey or cassava flour which act as burning accelerators.

It is then mixed with water, just enough to wet the mixture for moulding. Small-scale entrepreneurs The wet mixture is then fed through a binding machine, which moulds the dough and produces a long cylindrical shaped charcoal tube which is then cut into pieces to be dried in the sun for three to four days, according to Fredrick Magutu, a new coconut briquette entrepreneur operating in Msambweni, Kwale County. Mr Magutu is in a group of over 250 beneficiaries at the Coast who have been trained and equipped by a partnership between Practical Action and the Micro Enterprise Support Programme Trust (MESPT).

Under the Energy Enterprise Support Initiative Coast Kenya project, the focus is on empowering small-scale entrepreneurs with a view to harnessing efficient utilisation of natural resources. This also helps in protecting the environment. “The (business) potential is so huge because because every farmer in Coast region has a coconut tree and all this material is being wasted with no economic benefit, but what we are telling them is that if they value add, they can uplift their lives,” said a Mr Emmanuel from Practical Action. Doubling up as a trainer for the project, Ramadhan Swaleh now also earns a monthly salary of Shs100,000 for his expertise and boasts having trained over 1,500 entrepreneurs.

Mr Swaleh says currently the market demand is picking up fast but the main challenge remains the capacity of entrepreneurs to produce sufficient briquettes. “For example at the moment, a certain company requires 50 tonnes of briquettes per day from me but I have been unable to supply. In order to meet this, I would need to have 20 (production) machines with a capacity to produce around four tonnes daily” he said.

His two modern machines have a production capacity of about two and a half tonnes per day. As a fuel suitable for household use and in food industries where it is highly recommended for barbecues, the charcoal is hotter, lasts longer, doesn’t spark like wood charcoal and also emits less carbon emissions, according to the inventors. Supermarket shelves Swaleh says while coconut briquette charcoal is more popular in the Asian community where it has long since found its way onto supermarket shelves and other mainstream marketing platforms. “Often those who do this business lack the capacity to go out there and market their stuff so they end up selling it only within their neighbourhoods and villages,” he said. Currently, the project has also embarked on exposing entrepreneurs to exhibitions and marketing drives to expand their market potential. “We are equipping them with technical and business skills so that they can interact with customers.

Our aim is to create market linkages for them so that they can have a sustainable market. When we market them, new clients become interested and make more orders for the products …” said Practical Action’s Emmanuel. He added that promotional campaigns are usually fruitful and entrepreneurs end up selling over half a tonne of briquettes in less than four hours “on a bad day”.

First published here