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Fuel for Thought: problem with briquettes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“We’d like to know what the problem was with the briquettes.” It’s Monday morning and Emily and I are talking with a group of women with the help of Naomi as translator. Last spring, the DHE travel team had worked with these women and taught them how to make briquettes: how to soak newspaper to make a sticky binder, how to press the paper with charcoal. The women had been eager and excited to learn; they purchased their own press and mold and were ready and waiting when the next DHE travel team arrived last summer to continue their training.

That was last summer. Now an entire year has passed since we’ve talked with this group. Naomi is the walimu of the group, the teacher or advisor. We had interpreted from what she had told us that the briquetting operation that this group had set up wasn’t good, that the women had abandoned their attempt. We were disappointed to say the least. Here we are, a group of college students out to save the world by spreading the word of briquetting—how could it not be accepted by everybody straightaway?

As a group of college students from the states working in Tanzania, we understand and face the same challenges that many NGOs face when working with people 10,000 miles away who we see twice a year. Communication is difficult when we’re not speaking face to face; in some cases we rely on secondary sources to hear how the briquetting operations that we set up are faring, such as with Naomi and this group of women.

Naomi translates the question into Swahili for the women as the women speak no English. (Another challenge we face. I always wonder what is getting lost in translation when two people go on for a solid five minutes in Swahili, I ask for a translation, and get a one sentence response.) We get a lot of blank looks. Did the question make sense? A woman starts to speak and a few others nod in agreement.

“Okay,” says Naomi. “They say that they have not been briquetting right now because it is no sun. The weather is no good. They need sun. Okay?” Sun? It’s the dry season. So they had stopped briquetting because of a climate issue. Well ok. Before the meeting Emily and I had tried to come up with reasons why a briquetting operation would be abandoned, everything from the briquettes being too slow for cooking to the women being unable to collect enough biomass to the women not liking the briquetting press. We had been under the impression that the operation was abandoned because of technical dissatisfaction not climate. This is why you ask questions to the source.

We continue in this manner, stumbling through more questions and translations. Something wasn’t adding up. Let’s try being very direct. “Naomi, can you ask, are they still briquetting?”

The answer comes back. Yes, yes they are, every Thursday in fact. Ah. Never assume. They bring out some of the briquettes they made last week and boy, do their briquettes look and feel nice. The briquettes are made with charcoal, paper, and sawdust, have quite a lot of heft and the women say they really like them. Their biggest problem is a lack of capacity to produce more. Of the problems that we can think up, that’s a good problem to have.

The following week Emily and I return to the group for their weekly briquette making session. After situating us on a bench so that we might have the best view of the proceedings, I was rather surprised when, instead of pulling out a briquette press and slurry, the women bring out bags of beaded bowls, tie-dyed fabric, and picture frames of banana leaf landscapes. What does any of that have to do with briquetting? The women take care to explain the production of each item, pausing after each step to allow Naomi to translate. We learn how to tie-dye a batika and how to peel the banana leaves to make a picture. But where’s the charcoal and the press? Oh but that comes later. Briquetting is only a small piece of their story. They make the briquettes to replace a portion of their firewood or charcoal and they make crafts to sell to a distributor to make money. The variability in daily life requires flexibility, back ups, and multiple sources of income. Nothing is constant enough here for one thing to become the be all and end all. All of the women we’ve talked to, both in this group and in other contexts, mention the multiple fuels they use to cook. Charcoal appears to be most common, but when firewood is cheap and available, use firewood—when there is the money for gas, use gas. Briquettes are great, both for human health and environmental health, but they aren’t going to take over anyone’s life any time soon.

After the craft demonstration, the women begin pressing their briquettes. Slowly and steadily, the black trash bag lying on the ground begins to fill with drying briquettes. This is wicked cool. Something our group had shared with these women over a year ago had become a part of their story. They raved about the briquettes. One of the women we talk to likes the briquettes because they are good for the environment and decrease deforestation. Another woman talks about how cooking makes her happy when she uses briquettes because there is no smoke. The most repeated comment we hear is a desire to increase their production to make more briquettes.

Wow. It is at this point that I realize that our presence here in Tanzania is making a real, positive difference. Sawa sawa, it’s good.

Previously in this series:

Fuel for Thought: Travels in Tanzania
Fuel for Thought: Biomass to Briquettes
Fuel for Thought: trouble with language

Rachel Margolese About the Author: We are four students from Dartmouth College working in Tanzania to promote capacity building of cheap and sustainable cooking fuel. We are a part of the student-lead group Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE) which focus on providing ecologically and socially viable energy sources through the creation of fuel briquettes in the Arusha region of Tanzania. Follow on Twitter @HumanitarianEng.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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