Using waste materials to make eco-friendly coal

3 min readDec 17, 2021

Refugees in Malawi are making a living whilst protecting their environment

Francis Thawani

Dieudonne, who fled the conflict in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi, in 2017. Noticing the struggles female refugees were facing when fetching firewood in the surrounding forests, he founded the Green Uhuru organization to find alternative forms of fuel, whilst conserving the environment.

“Women in the camp suffered sexual assaults fetching firewood in the forests to make charcoal,” explained Dieudonne. “Also, chopping down trees to make charcoal depletes the forests which is harmful to the environment.”

Dieudonne busy sorting groundnut shells to make fuel briquettes. Photo: Primo Luanda

Between 2003 and 2021, the camp’s population increased from 6,000 to about 50,000 people which led to accelerated deforestation.

In 2018, with support from the World Food Programme (WFP), Dieudonne attended the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resource (LUANAR) to learn how to make briquettes. Since then, he has been sharing his knowledge within the community by leading awareness training on the impact of climate change and how a change of actions can protect the environment. To date, Dieudonne has trained 19 of his fellow refugees, both men and women, on briquette making.

Currently, his 20-member Green Uhuru is using recycled materials to make fuel briquettes as a substitute for charcoal fuel which they sell in the camp and in the surrounding villages. Money earned from selling the briquettes is shared among members, each taking home a minimum of 20, 000 Malawi Kwacha (US$ 25) every month which is used to purchase clothes and other essential household items.

“We collect waste materials like used paper, groundnut shells, cassava leftovers and sugarcane stalks, which we then carbonise to make the briquettes which burn longer than wooden charcoal,” said Dieudonne.

Used paper and scraps of food are carbonated and transformed into fuel. Photo: Primo Luanda

The waste materials are carbonized by heating them to very high temperatures to drive out all liquid and gases, leaving a solid residue.

“A bag of charcoal costs 700 Malawi Kwacha (US$ 1) while a bag of briquettes costs fifty percent less,” said Niyuhire Esperance, a female refugee participating in the project. “I feel safer using briquettes because I no longer go to the forest to fetch firewood. Moreover, the briquettes burn longer and retain heat.”

Female refugees like Niyuhire Esperance (right) have reduced fetching firewood as they have an alternative eco-friendly form of fuel. Photo: Primo Luanda

Dieudonne was working in a mine in DRC before he fled the country with his wife and four small children. He hopes to return to DRC one day when conflict ends. Until that day comes, his focus is on his work and keeping his family and community safe and healthy.

Malawi’s Country Environmental Profile (April 2021) states that 97 percent of Malawian households rely on firewood or charcoal as their primary source of domestic cooking and heating fuel. Within this context, the demand for charcoal and firewood is driving deforestation and forest degradation throughout the country.

In addition to supporting refugees, WFP is implementing an integrated resilience programme supporting 128,000 rural farmers to plant trees, regenerate woodlots and rehabilitate degraded watersheds. The programme also encourages participants to use fuel efficient stoves. Participants have reported reduction in time spent on fetching firewood by 60 percent. Since 2016, about 8.4 million tree seedlings were raised and 9,000 Hectares (ha) of community woodlots (over 12,000 soccer pitches) have been protected.

Due to the encampment policy, most refugees have limited income generating opportunities. UNHCR, WFP-supported NGOs, Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD) are working with 385 refugees and 325 host community members on irrigation and growing high value crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and onions. The project has also provided livestock and other income generating activities.

Read more about WFP’s work in Malawi