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[KAMPALA] Banana stems, maize and other crop waste will be turned into charcoal briquettes in Uganda in an effort to reduce the number of trees chopped down for cooking fires.

The project, funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), will train 600 farmers across the country to make briquettes using portable metal kilns that can be moved between farms, according to Maxwell Onapa, deputy executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST).

A lack of modern and affordable fuels, such as gas, electricity and solar power, makes wood charcoal and firewood the preferred sources of domestic cooking fuel, but this is damaging the environment through deforestation and soil degradation, said Onapa.

The kiln, which requires two people to operate it, takes about 20 minutes to convert 6–8 kilogrammes of biomass into 2–3 kg of char powder.

This is mixed with a binder in the form of starch paste to make briquettes, using a screw extruder, which can either be hand-operated or powered by a diesel engine or electric motor.

UNCST is implementing the project in collaboration with the Uganda National Farmers Federation and the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute, Uganda.

"The interest the technology generated among [the] 90 participants of the pilot training, and the lessons learned, shaped the design of this project," said Onapa. The project team aims to reach 600 participants in 20 of Uganda's 112 districts.

The IDB will fund 80 per cent of the training cost and supply of equipment, monitoring and evaluation, along with a share of the cost of research into developing charcoal manufacturing technologies, with the Ugandan government providing the remaining 20 per cent.

Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, warned: "The project may not be sustainable because if they run out of the agricultural waste to manufacture the charcoal briquette, people will go back to cutting trees."

But Jane Nalunga, a senior training officer at the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda, said that removing agricultural waste and turning it into energy will reduce soil nutrition. The project, she said, should focus more on training farmers to plant trees such as Pisonia which could increase nutrients in the soil and be used as firewood as well.

The project will begin once the Ugandan Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development signs a technical assistance project grant agreement with the IDB.