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Green charcoal power

Immersed in the luxury of the Mekong View Tower Spa and Health Club, environmental concerns are perhaps at the back of the mind of clients who are there to relax and rewind, but even unknowingly, they are supporting a green initiative based in Phnom Penh.

The Mekong View Tower spa is using a sustainable green fuel to heat its sauna, steam room and Jacuzzis. Manufactured by the Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise, which provides jobs to poor workers living near the dumpsite in Stung Meanchey, the product is greener, cleaner and more efficient than traditional charcoal. The charcoal is made from old coconut shells and char residue from other factories.

This recycling of biomass reduces the pressure on natural resources in a country where the production of charcoal is a major driver of deforestation.

Mekong View Tower Spa manager Sou Sokha Lay says that the switch has had multiple benefits. “The main reason for switching was money,” he says, “We were spending US$3,500 a month on charcoal but now we only spend $2,000. It’s very efficient. Using this charcoal is also important to stop deforestation. It means that we can help save the environment.”

Carlo Figà Talamanca, manager of the charcoal making company, is extremely proud of the product and can’t help chiming in with more advantages of the environmentally friendly briquettes: “they also [create less] smoke, meaning that they are great for buildings like this one where hygiene is important.”

The figures he quotes are impressive: his factory turns out 10 tonnes of briquettes every month: each tonne of charcoal saves 6.6 tonnes of wood; and at current sales the company is saving 1,500 tonnes of carbon emissions.

It is estimated that 100,000 tonnes of charcoal is consumed in Phnom Penh every year and so far, the company supplies just 0.1 per cent of this. Figà Talamanca sees huge opportunity to expand and plans to double output in the near future.

As well as commercial customers, he says that around 200 families use the biomass briquettes and they’re perfect for domestic needs. The price is comparable to that of regular charcoal but as well as better fuel efficiency, less smoke means fewer respiratory ailments and fewer blackened pots and pans.

So innovative is the project, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown interest and want to learn from this Cambodian venture in order to inform their similar scheme in Africa, Figà Talamanca says.

He is working hard to generate more interest in the product against culture of conservatism and distrust of change, but with high-profile clients like the Mekong View Tower joining his list the future looks bright – and not just for his company.

Although there’s a long way to go, projects like this one provide hope for the future of Cambodia’s natural resources.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Brown at



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