Trash Into Charcoal

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By Janna Graham

When French author Gérard Prunier described the Rwandan landscape he wrote, “The whole country looks to some degree like a gigantic garden, meticulously tended, almost manicured.” In this small landlocked East African country of roughly 26,338 sq km – slightly smaller than the state of Maryland – land is used to its full capacity. Dense plots of corn plants, banana trees, bean stalks and grazing goats battle for space alongside an ever-growing fleet of houses, cars, motorcycle taxis and buses spewing smoke through Kigali.

Kigali is in a constant state of construction and economic revitalization – buildings are going up, the government is luring foreign investment and charging tourists an arm and a leg for gorilla treks. Standing in the middle of downtown Kigali today, it’s difficult to imagine the tragic, post-apocalyptic city after the 1994 genocide. This is a city on the rise, attempting to leave over its past.

The formation of cooperatives as a solution to overcoming poverty is a government supported strategy. Citizens band together with a shared intention and figure out a way to work together towards a common goal.

Some of these cooperatives, like the Association for Environmental Conservation (ACEN), are finding incredibly innovative ways to deal with household trash while at the same time creating a sustainable energy product and making money! Composed of mainly women (many are HIV positive or widows), ACEN has created a sustainable industry for the local community by turning trash into charcoal.

On a small plot out the edge of Kigali, ACEN members have built a kind of recycling garden in which mountains of garbage are sorted, composted and eventually turned into charcoal. The entire process takes about seven days and begins with staff collecting trash from nearby homes. The garbage is taken back to ACEN headquarters for careful sorting. Almost everything is used except plastics.

The compostable materials (banana peels, corn husks, and bean shells) are most valuable. They are dried, ground up and mixed with rainwater. A giant mixing machine then churns out long tubes of charcoal.This particular charcoal burns longer, creates less smoke and obviously doesn’t rely on precious wood. The added bonus is that it’s way cheaper for local homes to purchase ACEN’s compost charcoal than to buy traditional charcoal at the store.

Rwanda doesn’t have any recycling programs. So, ACEN is fulfilling a very essential function for the residents of this Kigali suburb. This inspiring cooperative has dreams of expanding their operations around the country and devising a way to recycle plastic containers.

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