In Sierra Leone, fight deforestation with coconuts
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Their home is gone. They weren’t at the hospital or the morgue. Even as he searched the news to find their faces, the teenager knew: His adoptive family – who gave him a bed while he was sleeping under the bridge – did not live. after the landslide.
About this series
Climate visionaries highlight outstanding people around the world who are working to find climate solutions.
Three days of downpour, heavy rain for the rainy season in Sierra Leone, gave way to reddish-brown manure that trickled down the residential slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain. The sinkhole has opened. People in this hilly capital reported that they heard a crack – like thunder, or a bomb – before the earth collapses.
Alhaji Siraj Bah, 22 this year, could have been there on the morning of August 2017 if his boss hadn’t put him on the night shift. He may have shared a bedroom with his best friend, Abdul, whom he calls “brother”.
Instead, he was sweeping the floor of a drinking water factory when 1,141 people died or missing, including Abdul’s family.
“All I felt was helplessness,” he said, “so I focused on finding ways to help.”
Four years later, Bah runs her own business with nearly three dozen employees and one ambitious goal: Reduce Sierra Leone’s tree felling. – a damage that scientists say increases the risk of landslides – by encouraging his neighbors to exchange charcoal for charcoal made from coconut scrap instead. The piles of discarded husks and husks from juice vendors around Freetown provide a source of energy that doesn’t need to be chopped.
[Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday]
His business, Rugsal Trading, now produces about 100 tons of coconut biscuits, which studies show, burn longer for families mostly cooking on outdoor kitchenettes. A report in the Philippines found that one ton of charcoal looks like natural waste equivalent to up to 88 plants with a 10 cm stem.
“My motivation is: The bigger we get, the more we can save our trees,” Bah said on a wet afternoon in the capital, chatting between coconut scrap collection stops. “The hardest part is the announcement of this replacement. Everyone loves charcoal.”
View of a hillside outside the community of Mortormeh. On August 14, 2017, rocks, debris and mud flowed down from above, destroying hundreds of homes and killing more than 1,000 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Researchers aren’t sure what caused the worst natural disaster in the West African country’s history, but some point to the disappearance of trees on Sugarloaf Mountain. Deforestation is not only liberating lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – it weakens the slope. The arches are important to absorb rainwater and tame floods. Roots anchor the soil together.
But Freetown’s mountains have gone bald as people gather wood to clear plots of land for housing and make charcoal, the primary cooking fuel in a country where electricity is often unreliable. Sierra Leone has lost 30% of its forest cover over the past two decades, according to Global forest monitoring, an international tracker.
Bah has noticed the men in his neighborhood harvesting wood practically every day. Many people burn it to produce sacks of coal. Most of the people he knew cook with it.
What if he could change that?
Alhaji Bah, 22, managing director of Rugsal Trading, walks to his factory in Newton, Sierra Leone, on October 6. Meanwhile, employees sort coconut waste at the factory.
Growing up, Bah was attached to inventors. His idol is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook. When he was ten, according to his mother, he committed to creating the next big thing. His father, a driver, died two years later, and the family had no money left to take care of Bah and his sister.
So, at the age of 12, he snuck out of his home in his eastern village, hitchhiking to Freetown.
“I consider it the promised land,” he said. “I thought if I could get here, I could feed my family.”
Bah lived on the streets for four years, washing cars for food. He later met Abdul on a football field and the two became close. He moved in with the boy’s family for nine months before the landslide.
“After that, he was always on YouTube,” said Foday Conteh, 23, who met Bah while they were both living on the street. “He’s obsessed with finding ways to stop deforestation.”
Bah, 17 years old at the time, watched a video of a man in Indonesia making alternative charcoal from coconut shells. Others do the same thing in Ghana and Kenya: Collecting coconut scraps, drying them in the sun, crushing them, heating them in steel barrels.
He watched manufacturers mix black flour with a binder like tapioca and then feed the dough into a machine that spits out translucent breads. Next is to cut the loaves into squares. You can bake them the same way – except that the aroma of coconut wafts through the air.
“It looks like a great business idea,” Bah said. “I can make fuel with things we find on the street.”
He continued to study the concept on his boss’s computer. The machine cost around $3,000, so Bah asked for more hours and a raise. (The boss’s wife, Ejatu Sesay, recalls: “He was very young, but he was very determined.”)
The salary alone wasn’t enough, prompting him to follow the blueprint of another young entrepreneur he’d read in Uganda, who started a recycling bag business with $18. Bah saved for scissors and glue. He visits shops around town, offering bags made from discarded paper to customers who pay half upfront.
A hotel manager agreed, and Bah suddenly had the capital to make a thousand bags. The order took five days to complete and netted him $100. More customers show up. Within a few months, he had acquired the necessary machine to make coconut cakes.
Staff at Rugsal Trading at work on October 6.
Rugsal Trading employees are working on making coconut cakes. The company has grown from a one-room house to eight acres outside the city.
First Bah needs coconut waste. Its a lot. Juice vendors throw the peels all over the city. He packed them up and researched the tutorials online.
The Indonesian man on YouTube said these cakes will burn twice as long as charcoal and research in Ghana supported the claim. That’s Bah’s selling point: A typical buyer, he knows, wants to save cash – the benefit to the environment will be an added bonus.
He introduced the product to his regular paper bag customers, and eventually a restaurant owner agreed to let them try it out. Her Verdict: They Are Dumb Fools. She returns Bah’s product.
The young entrepreneur had to start over.
He contacted an entrepreneur in Ghana who had founded a coconut cookie empire. Sulley Amin Abubakar, 35, was 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 realizing it. that these debris could be a cheap source of energy.
An employee slices coconut cakes at Rugsal Trading, while freshly made cakes dry in the sun.
“Alhaji seems very passionate, as if he really wants to make a difference,” says Abubakar, “and I alone cannot deliver for the whole of Africa.”
He shared tips and critiqued Bah’s process. They discussed a common belief: “When the last tree dies,” Abubakar said, “the last person dies.”
Bah’s second attempt was successful. His client list has grown to include grocery stores around Freetown. He left the factory and built an aluminum shack on the outskirts of the capital. He named the operation Rugsal Trading — after his mother, Rugiatu, and father, Salieu — and applied for funding across Africa and the United States.
United Nations name him was a finalist for “Young Champion of the Earth” in 2019. The following year, he received an invitation to speak at a startup conference at Harvard Business School, where he won a prize of 5,000 dollars. The money funded more equipment and staff, but he lacked qualified teammates.
Bah paid his streetmate, Conteh, to go to college – there was his accountant – and linked up with his current girlfriend, Adama Jalloh, a business student he met on Facebook. She became the director of Rugsal and won a throw-athon in Nigeria earned them about $12,000.
Bah stands in a small chicken coop with his mother Rugiatu Bah. A sign outside the Rugsal Trading building. A rooster stands at the entrance to Rugsal Trading.
Rugsal has grown from one room to eight acres outside the city.
On a recent morning, Bah, dressed in orange jumpsuits, strolled through his property – past plots of tomatoes and bell peppers, and past the chicken coop – to an open field where two workers hauled clams. coconut in the steel barrel.
His mother, Rugiatu, greeted him with a smile. Bah brought her here from the village.
Nearby, four other employees in a concrete warehouse operate three briquetting machines, grinding rice husks into grinders with a tool resembling a baseball bat. Another man, squatting on the ground, sliced loaves of bread into cubes. After they were dried in the October heat, Bah tried stomping them one by one. Anything that crumbled under his boots was left unchecked.
The business shipped nine tons that month.
“I was a homeless boy,” Bah said, “and now, on a good month, we have $11,000 in sales.”
His mother laughed.
“He was always like this,” she said. “He wanted to do something big.”
Deforestation still worries him. Charcoal remains king in Africa – the continent that accounts for 65% of global coal production – and people don’t stop cutting down Sugarloaf Mountain. President of Sierra Leone among 100 world leaders vow to stop deforestation in 2030 at this year’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, and Bah hopes he’ll stick to his word.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Bah said.
He has just ordered an assembly line from China that allows the company to produce 8 tons of pellets per hour. It will arrive in February. Bah plans to expand into Guinea and Liberia. His neighbors also have endangered forests.
Abdul Samba Brima of Freetown contributed to this report
About this story
https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/interactive/2021/deforestation-sierra-leone-alhaji-siraj-bah/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_world In Sierra Leone, fight deforestation with coconuts