Trash To Treasure: Sawdust Is Alternate Fuel Source In Africa

Trash To Treasure: Sawdust Is Alternate Fuel Source In Africa

With the rising cost of fuel, Kenyans are learning to face the harsh economic realities with smart innovations. Some have turned to sawdust as an alternate fuel source.

Obtained from timber millers and dealers, the sawdust is either given away free or sold for fuel.

Deforestation and desertification are serious issues in Kenya. The environmental impact of decades of indiscriminate tree felling is taking its toll. Authorities are more focused than ever on conservation of forests. This has led to rising costs of firewood and charcoal. Most people cannot afford cooking gas and electricity.

The quest for new fuel sources has become a necessity in Kenya as fuel such as liquid petroleum gas and energy such as hydroelectric power become increasingly unaffordable for use in homes and small industrial operations.

The cost of wood and charcoal has shot up, and restrictions have been put in place to protect forests.

Only licensed timber millers are allowed into forests to clear specific areas. The timber is transported to factories for manufacturing products such as block boards, plywood, cornices and door frames. During production, the ensuing sawdust has suddenly gone from being trash to being a byproduct.

Some milling factories give away sawdust and will happily ask those interested to take away as much of it as possible. In regions where there is high demand and few factories, a sack of sawdust goes for $1 to $1.50.

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James Kimani, who runs a small hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi, said if it wasn’t for sawdust, he would have been forced to close down his business. His suburb is located 5 kilometers from the city center. “We obtain sawdust from either Timsales or Raiply, the two major timber milling companies in the country. All that we are required to do in order to collect the sawdust is to sweep the factory floor and fill as many bags as we need. It’s very cheap to operate this business using sawdust.”

A liter of kerosene costs about $1. “Sawdust gives our businesses a lifeline,” Kimani said. “A plate of rice and beans costs 50 cents. It is impossible to maintain such low costs if one is using other fuels…any small increase in food prices is usually strongly resisted because of the biting poverty in this area.”

John Kuria runs a butchery and restaurant in Juja, 35 kilometers from the city center. “Although we buy sawdust at $1 per bag, it is much cheaper when compared to wood or charcoal,” he said. Kuria gets sawdust from local timber yards and carpenters. Timber merchants get sawdust from sawing timber to the various sizes needed by customers for construction work, while carpenters get it from making household furniture like tables and stools.

An added advantage of sawdust, Kuria said, is that it cooks food faster than fuels such as wood and charcoal. Sawdust is difficult to find around his neighborhood because there are no major sawmills in the area. This has created shortages and competition for the little sawdust that becomes available. As a result, he must make reservations in advance to be assured a bag of sawdust daily, which is what his restaurant requires.

The sawdust is placed in specially made cookers available for purchase from local artisans. There is a booming market for these cookers, which come in various sizes to suit customer needs. The cookers are used in homes, small restaurants and schools mainly in urban centers.

Some local timber millers are licensed to obtain trees from local forests. The government sometimes advertises for bids to harvest timber. There is always intense competition for these tenders.

Two different qualities of sawdust are produced by millers and timber yards. Fine sawdust is produced when logs are sawed into smaller sizes. Coarse sawdust, on the other hand, is produced through planing timber for applications that require smooth wood. For fuel purposes, most customers prefer the fine sawdust. Coarse sawdust is mostly used by people who rear chickens, rabbits and other livestock to keep the birds and animals warm.

Health officials encourage the use of sawdust, which they say is a healthier option than firewood and charcoal. A local health officer said sawdust has no adverse health side effects.