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.

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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.

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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.” In Sierra Leone, fight deforestation with coconuts

Huynh Nguyen

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