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Going black before going green

Going black before going green

HIDDEN in the labyrinth of Stung Meanchey province’s factories, the Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) found a cleaner way to produce charcoal: from coconut shells and industry leftovers. It is still one of the principal sources of energy for cooking in urban areas.

Chief Executive Carlo Figà Talamanca runs his fingers through the black dust as he explains the production process. Resources – shells and burned wood from a neighbouring factory’s gasifiers – are numerous, but the output is still low due to the factory’s small capacity.

“We learned our lesson. A factory with such a small capacity can’t be economically sustainable. The next factory that we’re planning in Africa will be bigger,” said biomass energy consultant Aurélien Herail, who helped set up the factory implemented by the NGO Group the Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES).

The factory was set up in 2008 as a result of a joint venture by GERES and Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE).

Since 2012, SGFE is fully independent and expanding in the hope of becoming sustainable.

While SGFE produced and sold not more than six tonnes per month in 2010, its sales have since increased to nearly  20 tonnes per month.

“About the end of March we plan to double up the production capacity and expand its distribution and sales network to 40 tonnes per month. By 2016 SGFE looks forward to reaching 80 tonnes per month of production capacity and sales,” Talamanca, who plans to set up a sales shop, tells the Post.

The so-called char-briquettes, which cost 1,100 riel per kilogram, burn between two and five hours and produce less smoke.

According to Talamanca, they also contribute to the reduction of deforestation, saving “over 2,000 trees per year [or 10 hectares of natural rainforest] leading to a reduction of 1,250 tonnes per year of CO2 emissions.”

Distributors bring the product to Takeo, Sihanoukville, Svay Rieng and Phnom Penh to restaurants and shops.

So far, 14 employees work at the factory, each earning more than US$80 per month, plus a yearly bonus.

“Before, our employees worked as waste pickers at the municipal dump site in Steung Meanchey, one of the poorest districts of Phnom Penh,” Talamanca says.

He added that the company has high ethical standards: “PSE will inform us when one of our workers takes his children out of school. We will then talk to him or her until we find a solution that permits the children to continue learning.

“As charcoal prices are increasing, they are currently between 800 and 1,200 riel per kilogram, we look into a promising future. The only challenge is to make it sustainable by expanding,” Talamanca says while he grins at his production manager Chom Vichet, whose dusty black hands are preoccupied with the installation.

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