The global outcry against the use of braai charcoal produced from rainforest trees in South American and African countries is boosting demand and production of eco-friendly charcoal. This eco-friendly charcoal is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and is made from hardwood invasive alien plant (IAP) species in Southern Africa.

IAP species cover at least ten million hectares of land in South Africa and are responsible for taking an estimated 6% of the country’s fresh water annually. That is approximately 3,3 million cubic metres according to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF). Removing invasive species has been part of the DEFF Working for Water programme since 1995. This is being done at a current cost of approximately R1,8 billion per year. However, the programme needs added impetus to deliver significant value to all stakeholders.

On the hills of the Eastern Cape, almost 30km from Matatiele, a consortium of eight small businesses are well on their way to building an eco-friendly charcoal production business. This is the first time something like this is done on tribal communal land in South Africa. The small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) involved are Emabhaceni Development and Nature Solutions and Sivuyise Trading Enterprise from Colana, Mosia Heso Trading Enterprise and Mtumtum Enterprise from Madlangala, Mandilam from Mvenyane, Morumotsho Charcoal Production from Nkasela, Eco-char from Hebron, and Mrhulashe Trading Enterprise from Mngquna.

Organisations backing businesses

The FSC-certified charcoal project has a robust contingent of organisations behind it that manage, develop, monitor and support operations every step of the way. These include Avocado Vision’s Green Business Value Chain (GBVC) as project managers, the globally renowned CMO Group Scheme, which works with FSC in an auditing capacity, Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), Conservation South Africa, Lima Rural Development Foundation, and DEFF.

In September, the first restaurant-quality, eco-friendly charcoal was produced in two kilns in a planned bank of 25 that the partnership of SMMEs and organisations will set up in the area. The wood for the eco-friendly charcoal is sourced from invasive biomass from the vast swathes of black and silver wattle trees that devastate the area’s water table and ecosystem.

Success with eco-friendly charcoal

Jules Newton, GBVC programme director, says: “Reaching the charcoal-testing stage of the process was a proud and exhilarating experience for all the project partners, particularly for the entrepreneurs. Every process is eco-responsible, from the way the invasive biomass is removed and delivered to the production site by newly trained teams of workers, to the kilns and production process.

“Every participant’s investment of time, energy, finances, learning, and commitment to succeed has been huge throughout this journey. Producing A-grade, eco-friendly charcoal in our pilot phase has been the encouragement we need as we tackle the next phases.”

Newton believes that a key factor that contributes to the project’s success is the intense training, development and support that all the partners give the SMMEs throughout the processes. “Avocado Vision brings the SMMEs into a virtual incubator, which supports the businesses throughout their growth. We make sure that foundational business basics are in place and that they are empowered to succeed sustainably.”

Jules Newton, GBVC programme director, believes that a key factor that contributes to the project’s success is the intense training, development and support that all the partners give the SMMEs throughout the processes.

Adding more value

“We know there is enough invasive biomass to ensure continued charcoal production for probably decades to come. However, these small businesses are gaining skills that will enable them to branch out into other business ventures should the removal and value-adding of invasive biomass no longer be viable for them,” Newton adds.

GBVC works with 121 entrepreneurs and partners under the auspices of the DEFF, in several locations around the country.

They also identify and help start businesses that add value to the wood of IAPs such as charcoal, timber, furniture, artwork, pulp, paper, firewood, mining and construction poles. The goal is to drive a strong invasive biomass economy by boosting demand for it throughout the value chain.

The next steps for Team Matatiele Charcoal are already being taken. The remaining kilns are in the process of being installed or manufactured. Furthermore, local and international markets for top-grade, eco-friendly charcoal are actively being sought. – Press release, Avo Vision