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Dennis Tessier: Eco-Charcoal in Tanzania

by Alejandro Litovsky 15 April 2010

330 ha. of deforestation a day are created by the production of charcoal in Tanzania, which is used as cooking fuel by the majority of the population. Solutions like the one promoted by Joint Environmental Techniques (JET) for producing eco charcoal from agricultural waste, are among the simple solutions that could slow deforestation while providing jobs.

In this interview in March 2010, Colin Ma, an intern with the Pathways to Scale program who is completing his MBA at the London Business School, talks to Dennis Tessier, co-founder of JET, about how this business model can scale-back the logic of deforestation. See the Biosphere Economy for more information on this area of work at Volans.

Charcoal production in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa typically requires extensive depletion of live forestry resources. Considering that charcoal is the fuel of choice in many parts of Africa and the rate at which forest resources are being depleted to produce charcoal, this production method is clearly not sustainable and has become an alarming threat to the continent’s environmental health.

Joint Environmental Techniques (JET) and Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in Africa (ARTI) are committed to stopping this trend and transforming the industry by making it possible to produce charcoal with dry biomass and agricultural waste instead. The technology required for this production process is kilns made of recycled materials and can be commercialized and sold as an enterprise in itself to local charcoal producers. The kilns are manually operated, and the briquettes produced are cheaper and less labour-intensive to produce than charcoal produced with wood sourced from live forests. JET and ARTI’s eco-briquettes are competitive in quality when compared to wood charcoal and JET and ARTI aims to sell its eco-briquettes at prices that are at least 20% less than prices for wood charcoal.

Taking into account Tanzania’s $650 million charcoal market (with Dar es Salaam alone accounting for 50% of this market), the potential of this technology and the implications that the technology bring to conserving forestry resources in Africa are undoubtedly significant.

Colin: What inspired you to establish ARTI Africa?

Dennis: It was a combination of things. I have been very connected with nature and the outdoors since my childhood, so I think it is natural for me to be passionate about doing something positive for the environment. As I became more exposed to other critical problems that the world is faced with such as poverty and resource scarcity, it became clear to me that there are significant opportunities to create positive changes. With this perspective and after I came across the technology at ARTI, I recognized that there are many possibilities to create significant social and environmental impact if the technology can be applied within a sustainable and appropriate model in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa.

Colin: What are some of the more innovative aspects of the JET/ARTI Africa eco-charcoal model?

Dennis: I am very proud of how JET and ARTI is working together with local populations to attempt to make the eco-charcoal model work. It is not enough to simply supply the technology required, the educational and marketing components are also keys to the model’s effectiveness. JET and ARTI have been able to essentially create a new value chain for charcoal by working closely with both local suppliers and consumers of charcoal at the grass-root level. The innovation lies not only in the technology, but also in how the technology is carefully crafted for and presented to all key players along the entire value chain to understand and adopt.

Colin: What is the social and environmental impact that you want to create with eco-charcoal?

Dennis: Charcoal production is currently responsible for 90% of the deforestation in the country, clearing 330 Ha of forests a day. If the number of kilns employed can be scaled up to over 1,000 units, this would generate at least 3,000 employment opportunities and offset an equivalent in tonnes of carbon dioxide. It is my hope that 20,000 jobs will be created by 2015. This is a sizeable market that presents many opportunities to create impact.

Colin: How are you planning to achieve scale with this model?

Dennis: JET currently faces the challenges associated with attempting to move the model beyond the pilot phase and scale up the model in Tanzania and East Africa. Challenges lie both on the supply side and the demand side. Significant efforts to train local populations to produce the charcoal and to help end-users understand the value that eco-charcoal brings will continue to be critical in effectively connecting the links along the eco-charcoal value chain in East Africa. It is critical for JET to secure the financial and operational support it needs to establish and commercialize the eco-charcoal value chain.

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