It is a potential source of clean energy and fertiliser capable of improving both the daily lives of Congolese and the country's economy.
When Destin Babila, a young polytechnician from Pointe-Noire, presented his biochar project to relatives in 2019, skepticism was in order.
"The most polite taunts were expressed in giggles punctuated by comments that were often derogatory, even discouraging," he recalls. “What can we pull from waste? Trash is trash” — a contentious blade from the most skeptical.
"However,” Destin Babila replies serenely with a burst of laughter, “the reality is there: There is gold in the garbage. It is green gold!"
Three years later, the dream has taken shape and skeptics seem confused. With Wumela Biocarbon, the start-up created by the polytechnicien, garbage is experiencing a second life, a metamorphosis.
With ecological charcoal, also called bio-charcoal or biochar, ecological fertilisers do indeed exist. These are the first products of the start-up, which employs 12 permanent staff.
Amused at first, Destin Babila says he was shocked and revolted by the amount of garbage that was gaining terrain in the city of Pointe-Noire.
"80% of waste is used to make biomass,” explains Destin Babila. “We are shocked by the amount of waste around us. We launched the project to recover garbage and offer clean energy to the population that generates this same trash."
This clean energy is bio-charcoal, "a derivative of administrative biomass (such as paper), agricultural biomass (for example dead wood, spent grain, and bagasse, which is a fibrous residue resulting from the crushing of sugar cane) and biomass from households," says Destin Babila.
To obtain biochar, Wumela’a teams collect and sort waste. A drying, roasting and grinding process follows to obtain a black powder enriched with additives.
The moulding to give the bio-charcoal its shape completes the process. After three days of drying, the final product is ready to be used, notably in the form of briquettes. Beyond the fight against urban insalubrity, the production of bio-charcoal is also part of the fight to preserve the forest, according to Destin Babila.
Forest safety and preservation
A 2013 study conducted by the World Bank on behalf of COMIFAC (Central African Forest Commission) estimates that charcoal production is a real threat to the forests of the sub-region: "If it’s a matter of maintaining the status quo, procurement of charcoal could pose the most significant threat to the Congo Basin in the coming decades, where logging has steadily increased in recent years, the study authors warn.
According to estimates, more than 90 percent of the volume of wood harvested in the Congo Basin would be used to produce energy, and an equivalent of one cubic metre of wood would be needed, on average, per person per year.
"You see, given the official statistics, in 2016 in my country, Congo, we were at close to 100,000 tonnes of charcoal consumption and around 132,000 tonnes of firewood consumption. Meaning that if we act, we can really fight against deforestation and climate change," insists Destin Bibila.
Biochar improves yields and the battle against climate change
In addition to bio-carbon, the start-up has, since 2022, been producing biochar, an ecological fertiliser also obtained from agricultural or forestry vegetal waste.
"The biomass is burned by pyrolysis, in a specially designed oven, heated to more than 300 degrees without air. We must have a carbon content of more than 85 percent", explains Destin Babila.
This ecological fertiliser is evidently very beneficial for agriculture.
"The primary objective of biochar is to improve the soil, to maintain the microbial life of the soil. It allows for the retention of up to 15 percent of water, the regularisation of acidity of the soil. It retains a lot of carbon dioxide and thus contributes to the fight against global warming. When used well, underlines Destin Babila, biochar can improve production yields by 50 to 100 percent.”
These statements are corroborated by experts from Pro Natura, an international NGO initiated in Brazil following the Rio conference of 1992. Its objectives are: "rural development, protection of biodiversity and the battle against climate change in the developing countries."
"The introduction of 300 grams to one kilo of biochar per square metre can increase crop productivity in tropical areas between 50 to 200 percent, according to the NGO’s website. One single application creates and maintains a long-lasting fertility and increases carbon sequestration, which fights climate change The effects of biochar have been scientifically evaluated:
- Stimulation of soil biology (+40 percent of mycorrhiza fungi)
- Improvement of nutrient retention (+50 percent cation exchange)
- Increase in the water retention capacity in the soil (up to +18 percent)
- Increase in pH of acidic soils (1 point more on average)
- Increase in organic matter in the soil
- Reduced N2O and CH4 emissions."
Promising in spite of everything
A large company in Congo is closely following the evolution of biochar. Committed to an "ecological approach," this company wants "corn, one of the main ingredients in the manufacturing of its products, to be more environmentally friendly — that is, ecological,” specifies the polytechnician.
"Tests are in progress and we will make decisions at the end of the process" indicates an official of this branch of a large multinational.
The promoter of Wumela Bio-carbon says he is "able to contribute effectively to the improvement of agriculture in Congo thanks to biochar." The only handicap is the lack of financial means. "We are still operating via our own funds and we are not able to satisfy an ever-increasing demand," regrets Destin Babila.
Results, the production is limited to 30 tonnes per month…
"In Europe, they have the financial means, but no waste. Here, we have the waste, but no means", concludes, optimistic Destin Babila, for whom "the recycling of garbage is a growth sector..."