— Climate entrepreneur Morris Dougba shares ambitious vision to save Liberia’s forests with an alternative source of energy
It is less about the money but more about the intent — the fight against deforestation.
This fight, for Morris Dougba, a climate entrepreneur in Liberia, requires the swapping of wood-based charcoal for briquettes charcoal, which are sometimes made from leftover bits of wood and sawdust mixed or agricultural waste – an energy source that requires no chopping of trees.
His enterprise, Green Gold Liberia, which has been in existence since 2018, produces tons of charcoal briquettes yearly, which studies have shown smolder twice as long as wood charcoal — saving extra cash in the process and benefiting the environment. A ton of charcoal look-alikes created from natural waste was equivalent to conserving up to 88 trees, according to a study commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization in the Philippines on the use of charcoal briquettes.
“The more people use briquettes to charcoal, the more we can conserve our trees,” Dougba said while conversing between coconut trash collection stations on a humid afternoon in Brewerville City, on the northern fringes of Monrovia. “The good thing is everyone enjoys charcoal but this alternative is not just safer and helpful for the planet, but a cheap energy source.”
“The day the last tree dies, so does the last man. So this is why we are buying coconut shells and other agricultural waste products to turn them into an alternative source of energy that is healthier for the environment. And we expect that as time passes, we will be able to reduce the demand for wood charcoal, which continues to have a disastrous influence on deforestation.”
"337,000 metric tones of wood charcoal"
Dougba’s quest comes as charcoal remains the top cooking fuel in Liberia since electricity is often unreliable and not widely accessible to all. It is expected to be the mainstay energy source for years. With the current model of charcoal production, which is based on indiscriminate felling of trees, the situation worries Dougba as it poses a danger to the environment — regarding widespread forest degradation and deforestation.
The World Bank, in a 2019 report, says “under the Liberia Forest Sector Project, the use of charcoal, which is a significant source of greenhouse gas emission, has seen its demand growing rapidly to an estimated 337,000 metric tons worth US$46 million in 2018, due to ready availability, desirable performance characteristics and a lack of affordable alternatives.”
And the industry is thought to employ up to 28,000 people on a ‘full-time equivalent’ basis, though many more are in practice due to seasonal or part-time involvement, according to the Bank.
While charcoal rules the urban energy market, firewood is the most popular fuel in rural regions. According to the most recent national census (2008), 5 percent of rural families used charcoal as their principal cooking fuel, compared to 70 percent of urban households (increasing to 85 percent in Monrovia). Because charcoal is often used as a secondary fuel, the actual consumption rates are probably significantly higher.
Montserrado County, which includes Monrovia, dominates the market and accounts for over 65 percent of total demand, more than ten times greater than any other county, the World Bank 2019 report said. The next largest centers of demand are Margibi (6.5%) and Bong (6%), both adjacent to Montserrado, with Nimba, Grand Bassa, and Bomi ranked next, meaning that 90% of Liberia’s charcoal is consumed through the country’s central belt.
It is this high usage that scares Dougba since charcoal is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in Liberia, citing the Environmental Protection Agency in a report submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2020.
“As you burn charcoal you have CO2 going into the atmosphere, which causes the earth to get warmer. We are trying to keep the temperature at 1.5 degrees census, said Dr. Eugene Shannon, former Minister of Lands, Mines, and Energy, now President of the Natural Resources Development Corporation.
“Charcoal goes along with deforestation. People cut down trees to make charcoal and sell them to make some money to take care of themselves, send their children to school, and live a viable life without considering the environmental effect.”
In fact, the United Nations last year estimated that more than 950 million people rely on wood and charcoal for cooking in Sub-Saharan Africa alone; that number will rise to 1.67 billion by 2050.
And as charcoal remains king in Africa — Liberia being no exception — accounting for nearly 65 percent of global charcoal production, it will continue to accelerate the country’s biodiversity loss since traditional charcoal is produced by cutting down trees and burning them in kilns. This is because the manufacture of charcoal degrades arable land, and when trees are cut down for charcoal production, the lands become vulnerable to wind and water erosion since the deforestation caused by charcoal production alone emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year.
The environmental worry in the near future is certain. So Dougba, despite his fears, continues to be obsessed with finding ways to stop deforestation. As a result of this obsession, his company, Green Gold Liberia, now produces briquettes that are specifically designed to meet the needs of both commercial and domestic customers.
However, fixing a single charcoal briquette requires a lot of waste. So Dougba buys his waste product including coconut shells from juice vendors who see the extra cash as an incentive not just to uncontrollably dispose of their waste but to sell and earn some cash.
One ton of charcoal briquettes takes forty 25kg bags of rubbish — yet trash is something Dougba never runs out of since he receives a lot of it regularly. However, due to the lack of energy, he is unable to create as many charcoal briquettes as expected, as demand climbs.
“We are steadfastly committed to completing this task, which is to halt deforestation in Liberia, but we are wishing for support for this project,” he said. Sadly, electricity is the company's biggest challenge to produce more products. “We have to rely on solar panels. We spend more money when we use our generator and sometimes, on average, to run a twelve-hour shift, we spend US$42 for seven gallons of diesel.
“The boys selling coconut are major trash suppliers. They sell the coconut, we drink the water, and they bring that trash to us at Green Gold Liberia to buy.”
Unlike the manufacturing of ordinary charcoal, which requires a lot of physical labor, such as cutting trees and gathering, slicing them into pieces, piling them together to create a fire, and burning for weeks or months before collecting the coal, the process of producing briquettes is straightforward.
The garbage is collected and carbonized before being fed into a grinder machine that pulverizes it finely before being fed into a mixer and then into briquettes producing equipment that generates the finished product.
However, before the briquettes charcoal is sold, it must be dried in the sun, after which Dougba and his staff pack it in a 25kg bag containing 60 pieces. It is then sold at L$750 (US$5). Briquette charcoal burns slower and retains more heat than wood charcoal. When compared to carbonized briquettes, they have a higher heating value, fewer contaminants, and less moisture.
Dougba remarked that one ton of charcoal briquettes saves roughly 11 trees and that they smoke less, resulting in exceptionally good cooking conditions at all locations of usage.
“Very soon charcoal briquettes will replace wood charcoal and firewood. Once we get stable electricity, we are capable of producing a lot more for the population in Montserrado and subsequently the entire country. It is impossible. Deforestation is rampant and a lot of the country's forest is being lost each year.”
“It is against this nightmare that Green Gold was founded to preserve the remaining trees. At Green Gold, we are contributing to household income through people saving on daily costs rather than on cooking because charcoal briquettes stay longer and heat more compared to wood charcoal. We are also creating jobs for young people who work with the factory or as sales agents.”
Dougba’s interest in briquette manufacturing evolved during his time in the US, arguing that he is not deterred by challenges as he envisions a future where the country will transition to sustainable energy, with no tree cutting in the name of firewood harvesting. This vision has led to the manufacturing of an ecostove made from clay that can be used along with charcoal briquettes for domestic purposes.
“The charcoal briquettes and eco stoves, when produced in large quantities, would help reduce the country’s reliance on charcoal, which is one of the primary causes of deforestation. We have also introduced sell-pay for our distributor network. We tell them when someone wants the ecostove and you sell it in the community just tell them to bring me L$100 every day and in fifteen days you come for your ecostove and that is resonating with our people,’’ he said.
Editor’s note: This article is the unveiling of the Daily Observer Climate column called, Climate Visionaries, which is primarily intended to highlight Liberians who are working to find climate solutions.