Turning coconuts into charcoal to save forests
At the age of 12, Alhaji Siraj Bah was living on the street. A decade later, his business in Sierra Leone employs nearly three dozen people as they work to create a substitute for wood-based charcoal.
It all began four years ago. After three days of torrential downpours in August 2017 — heavy for Sierra Leone’s rainy season — rivers of reddish brown mud streamed down the residential slopes of Sugar Loaf mountain on the edge of Freetown, the country’s capital. Sinkholes opened. People reported hearing a crack — like thunder, or a bomb — before the earth collapsed.
Bah, now 22, might have been there that morning if his boss hadn’t put him on the night shift. He might have been sharing a bedroom with his best friend, Abdul, who he called “brother”. Instead he was sweeping the floor of a drinking water plant when 1,141 people died or went missing, including Abdul’s family.
“All I felt was helpless,” he says, “so I put my attention into finding ways to help.”
Four years on, Bah has an ambitious goal: to reduce the felling of Sierra Leone’s trees — a loss scientists say amplifies the mudslide risk — by encouraging his neighbours to swap wood-based charcoal for a substitute made from coconut scraps. Piles of coconut shells and husks are discarded every day by juice sellers around Freetown. Instead, they offer an energy source that requires no tree cutting.
His company has now produced roughly 90 tonnes of coconut briquettes, which, studies show, burn longer for households who do most of their cooking on small outdoor stoves. One report in the Philippines found that a tonne of charcoal lookalikes fashioned from coconut waste was equivalent to saving up to 80 trees with 10-cm trunks.
“My motivation is: The bigger we grow, the more we can save our trees,” Bah says. “The hardest part is getting the word out about this alternative. Everyone loves charcoal.”
Researchers weren’t sure what triggered the worst natural disaster in the West African country’s history, but some pointed to Sugar Loaf mountain’s vanishing greenery: deforestation weakens slopes, canopies are critical for soaking up rain and taming floods, and roots anchor the soil. The city’s residents have been clearing trees for housing and to make charcoal, the top cooking fuel in a nation where electricity is often unreliable. Sierra Leone has lost 30 percent of its forest cover over the last two decades, according to Global Forest Watch, an international tracker.
Bah had been noticing men in his neighbourhood harvesting wood almost every day. Many were burning it to produce bags of charcoal. Most people he knew cooked with it.
What if he could change that, he wondered.
Growing up, Bah fixated on inventors. When he was ten, according to his mother, he pledged to create the next big thing. His father, a driver, died two years later, and the family ran out of money to take care of Bah and his sister. So at 12, he snuck away from home in his eastern village, hitching a ride to Freetown.
“I saw it as the promised land,” he says. “I thought if I could make it here, I could support my whole family.”
Bah lived on the street for four years, washing cars for food. Then he met Abdul on a soccer field and the pair became close friends. He moved in with the boy’s family for nine months before the mudslide. “After that, he was always on YouTube,” says Foday Conteh, 23, who met Bah when they were both living on the street. “He became obsessed with looking for ways to stop deforestation.”
Bah, 17 at this point, saw a video of a man in Indonesia who crafted charcoal replacements from coconut shells. Others were doing something similar in Ghana and Kenya: collecting coconut scraps, drying them out in the sun, grinding them down, and charring them in steel drums. He watched the makers mix the blackened powder with binders such as cassava flour and then feed the dough into a machine that spits out matte loaves, which were then sliced into cubes. he saw they were being used to grill with instead of charcoal — except a coconut aroma fills the air.
“It looked like a great business idea,” Bah says. “I could make fuel with stuff we find on the street.”
He kept researching the concept on his boss’s computer. The machine cost about US$3,000, so Bah asked for more hours and a raise. But the wages alone weren’t enough. Then he read about another young entrepreneur in Uganda who’d started a recycled bag business with just US$18. Bah saved up for scissors and glue. He then visited shops around town, offering to sell bags fashioned from discarded paper for customers who would pay half upfront.
One hotel manager agreed, and Bah suddenly had the capital to make a thousand bags. The order took five days to complete and netted him US$100. More clients emerged. Within a few months, he’d bought the machine he needed to churn out the coconut briquettes.
First Bah needed coconut waste. Lots of it. Fortunately, juice vendors were discarding shells all over the city. So, he bagged them up and studied instructions online. The Indonesian on YouTube said the briquettes would smoulder twice as long as charcoal, and a study in Ghana backed that up. That was Bah’s selling point: A typical buyer, he knew, wanted to save cash — benefiting the environment would be an added bonus.
He pitched the product to his regular paper bag customers and eventually a restaurateur agreed to give them a try. Her verdict: They were duds that fell apart. She returned Bah’s product.
The young entrepreneur had to start over.
He reached out to a businessman in Ghana, who’d launched something of a coconut briquette empire. Sulley Amin Abubakar, 35, had been fed up with seeing coconut shells around his nation’s capital, Accra, so he dropped out of law school, thinking he’d build a waste management company before realising the debris could be a cheap energy source.
“Alhaji seemed so passionate, like he actually wanted to make a difference,” Abubakar says, “and I alone cannot supply all of Africa.”
He shared tips and critiqued Bah’s process. They discussed a shared belief:
“When the last tree dies,” Abubakar says, “the last man dies.”
Bah’s second attempt proved successful and his roster of clients grew to include grocery stores around Freetown. He left the factory and built an aluminium shack on the outskirts of town. He named the operation Rugsal Trading — after his mother, Rugiatu, and his father, Salieu — and applied for grants across Africa and the United States.
The United Nations named him a Young Champions of the Earth finalist in 2019. He received an invitation the following year to pitch at a startup conference at the Harvard Business School, where he won a US$5,000 prize. The money funded more equipment and employees, but he lacked teammates with expertise.
Bah paid for his friend from the street, Conteh, to attend university — there was his accountant — and linked up with his now-girlfriend, Adama Jalloh, a business student he met on Facebook. She became Rugsal’s director and won a Nigerian pitch-a-thon that netted them about US$12,000.
It wasn’t long before Rugsal grew from a single room to three hectares of land outside the city.
On a recent morning, Bah, sporting an orange jumpsuit, strolled through his property — through plots of tomatoes and capsicum, and past chicken coops — to a clearing where two workers hauled coconut shells into steel drums. Nearby, four other employees in a concrete shed were operating three briquette machines, crushing husks into the grinder with a tool that resembled a baseball bat. Another man, squatting on the ground, sliced the loaves into cubes. After they dried in the October heat, Bah tested each one with a stomp; anything that crumbled under his boot failed inspection. The business churned out just over eight tonnes that month.
“I was a homeless boy,” Bah says, “and now, on a good month, we do US$11,000 in revenue.”
Deforestation still worries him. Charcoal remains king in Africa — the continent accounts for 65% of global production — and people haven’t stopped hacking down trees on Sugar Loaf mountain. Sierra Leone’s president was among the 100 world leaders who vowed to halt deforestation by 2030 at this year’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, and Bah hopes he sticks to his word.
“We have a lot more to do,” he says.
He just ordered an assembly line from China, which would allow the company to make about seven tonnes of briquettes an hour. It should arrive by February 2022. Bah plans to expand into Guinea and Liberia. His neighbours also have endangered forests.
TOP Alhaji Bah
ABOVE, TOP LEFT Employees creating coconut briquettes
ABOVE, TOP RIGHT Cut briquettes
ABOVE, BOTTOM LEFT Newly-made briquettes drying in the sun
ABOVE, BOTTOM RIGHT Bah stands in a small chicken coop with his mother Rugiatu
ALL PHOTOS Melina Mara