A Lot of Waste and a Little Luck
The cool thing about the biochar community is that it’s filled with a lot of really interesting people who have traveled the world. Every now and then, some of these people end up in a living room of a fellow activist, who they may have never before met, to crash for the night while en route to their next destination.
This was the case a few weeks back, when Jeff Wallin made his mom’s recipe for enchiladas and invited his biochar team to hang out around his fireplace and share experiences about biochar and life. While everyone shared colorful stories and engaged in lively discussion with rare conviction, perhaps the most moving story was shared by Sanga Moses.
Born in Uganda, Sanga was raised in one of the poorest villages in the world. He didn’t own a pair of shoes until age 13 and, remarkably, was the first member of his clan to graduate university. With a degree in Business Administration, Sanga left his native village to go work as an accountant in the city. On a trip home to visit his mother, Sanga spotted his half-sister on the side of the road carrying firewood on her head. She was crying. She was 10 kilometers away from home and should have been in school. In Africa, when there is work to be done, the young girls are forced to stay behind while the boys receive education.
Sanga was so disturbed by the conditions his half-sister was enduring that he made it his life and his obsession to find an alternative way to produce wood-fuel so that young girls could attend school rather than traveling to gather firewood. He went back to the city and submitted his resignation to his boss, but his boss not only denied his request, but doubled his salary! Sanga complied, but after a few weeks had passed, the image of his sister was weighing so heavily on his conscience that he insisted on resigning, even though his boss had doubled his salary.
Sanga met a university professor who gave him a stack of papers to read about alternative energy sources. Most of them seemed unfeasible. Sanga had some experience with solar stoves, for example, and found they simply didn’t work as well as promised. Something that did catch his eye, though, was learning that agricultural waste could be burned into a char powder, which could then be made into a clean burning charcoal. As he was reading this paper, out his window sat a huge mound of agricultural waste. He thought to himself, “I can make charcoal out of this?!?” He realized that agricultural waste is abundant in Uganda and so began his quest to produce organic charcoal.
Sanga returned to his village and was willing to risk everything for his new venture. Perhaps his greatest sacrifice occurred when his girlfriend left him after he emptied his house and sold all of his belongings to make a kiln in order to begin production. At that moment, Sanga questioned his own sanity, but he was committed to his plan and began production, working with a team of university students to make a kiln.
When they finally came up with a working design, Sanga began to lease the kilns to farmers, and he bought the char from them, to be sold to women who would in turn sell it in local markets. The operation was small-scale, but once the charcoal went to market, the demand began growing. The charcoal was sold out of kiosks in the village market, where women would line up every morning and wait to buy the char. The buzz around town was that the charcoal cooked better, lasted longer and was not smoky like wood-fuel. As word spread, inevitably, there was never enough char to fill every order, so women had to be turned away.
While many lives have been improved, including his sister’s who now attends school regularly, Sanga’s work is just beginning. He was in Jeff’s living room sharing his story with us because he is visiting the U.S. to raise money to build a bigger facility to produce more kilns. His current facility meets only 10% of the demand and his goal is to provide at least 40 million Africans with affordable, clean energy by 2020.
As for profits, Sanga isn’t in it for the money. He once lost everything he had, including his girlfriend, in his alternative energy pursuit. Through strokes of luck and hard work, a boy from a village is now a man improving the lives of potentially millions in his country. And! His girlfriend came back – he gets married this month!