Fire at your desireMost of the household energy requirement in rural areas is met by biomass energy. Biofuels such as coal, wood and charcoal provide energy in hotels, restaurants and brick kilns.
Most of the household energy requirement in rural areas is met by biomass energy. Biofuels such as coal, wood and charcoal provide energy in hotels, restaurants and brick kilns. Thinning, trimming and cleaning are practiced annually in community forests as part of sustainable forest management. These activities generate a large amount of biomass which is used to produce charcoal and bio-briquettes in the villages. A person can earn up to Rs1,000 daily which is a good income for marginalised men and women who collect and burn forest waste and produce unprocessed dust charcoal.
Charcoal in demand
Dust charcoal is the raw material used to make different types of briquettes. In 2016, community people in major charcoal producing areas made approximately 2,800 tonnes of dust charcoal. There are three to four companies manufacturing briquettes, pillow-briquettes and pellets under different brand names. These products are sold mostly in department stores, groceries and sales depot in different cities. They are used for various purposes like baby massage, heating, cooking and barbecues. Company produced pillow-briquettes are nearly smokeless, and are in high demand in hotels and restaurants.
In 2016, Nepal’s charcoal imports from India and China amounted to Rs11 million and Rs1.5 million respectively. The country also buys charcoal from Malaysia and other countries but in smaller quantities. Nepal used to export charcoal till three years ago, but shipments stopped due to rising domestic demand. Local consumption of imported charcoal totalled 400 tonnes in 2016 which gives an idea about the level of demand. Hotels, restaurants and fast food outlets use charcoal brought from the villages, imported charcoal and charcoal produced from forest plant waste.
Hotels and restaurants mostly burn charcoal for roasting, barbecuing and making tandoori items. A study has shown that some five-star hotels are consuming a large amount of wood charcoal imported from India. They use up to 3,000-4,000 kg of charcoal per month which costs Rs80-85 per kg. However, there is a big difference in consumption and preference patterns. These hotels prefer medium sized, non-dust and long-burning charcoal. So there is a good opportunity for Nepali companies to produce charcoal as per their specifications and replace imports.
One fast food café in Kathmandu burns 300 kg of charcoal monthly, and demand is fulfilled by charcoal made in houses by burning firewood. This is difficult to get because of legal issues. Therefore, availability, quality and quantity are always uncertain. Because of these difficulties, many hotels and restaurants have started making barbecues and tandoori in gas fired ovens and tandoors. However, the taste is not as good as that provided by a charcoal oven.
So charcoal is the first choice of hotels and restaurants, and they will use it if they can find it easily, timely and at a competitive price. A similar situation exists in Pokhara and Narayangadh. Hotels and restaurants prefer to use Nepali products if they meet their requirements. Apart from hotels and restaurants, the use of charcoal is growing in private homes nowadays to make barbecues during family gatherings and outings. Family packs are available in the market, and they are mostly imported. This means there is much scope for Nepali manufacturers.
Expanding the sector
These facts show that there is a great market for charcoal, and sufficient raw materials like forest waste are available to make it. The existing companies can increase their production capacity. This is also an opportunity for new entrepreneurs to enter the sector. At the same time, marginalised people get more jobs in their villages collecting and making dust charcoal. A person wishing to make dust charcoal will need to acquire technical knowledge, and make a small investment of Rs30,000-40,000 to buy a charcoal burning kiln. Hopeful dust charcoal makers expect to get such support from the government, companies and non-governmental organisations. Assurances from the company that it will buy their products will be a major motivating factor, and this will attract more people into the business.
The government should recognise unwanted forest species as a source of alternative energy, and list charcoal making as a small cottage industry. Subsidies should be provided to buy charcoal burning machines to increase production and manage unwanted species in the forest. Similarly, a favourable policy environment for briquette making companies is crucial, and a high level policy dialogue is necessary to identify
constraints and remedies for operating a sustainable business. Companies should invest in promoting the available products in the market as most suppliers and consumers are unaware about charcoal prepared from unwanted forest plants like banmara. Branding as a Nepali product can be an added value. There are unlimited opportunities to earn money from forest waste for marginalised women and men besides entrepreneurs.
Jha is a technical coordinator for the Food Security and Nutrition Programme at the Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation