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For almost a decade, Fatouma Otoke has been running a small business that recovers waste wood for charcoal production. Her aim is to supply the dwellers of Kisangani – the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s third largest urban center – with a sustainable wood fuel alternative to cook their meals.

A logging enterprise operating an industrial sawmill, CFT (Compagnie Forestière et de Transformation), provides the raw material she needs. For a small fee, its employees help cut the waste wood into small pieces. Otoke just has to collect it and arrange for transport to a nearby field, where she can build a kiln for carbonization.

Her charcoal production business is well-established among consumers, even though the sustainable charcoal she sells is slightly more expensive than the regular option. She attributes her success partly to her prime location along the road that links the airport to the city. But more importantly, she says, because tropical hardwood from the sawmill produces charcoal of excellent quality that burns for a longer time, her product is an even more attractive option for small enterprises and well-off individuals.

   The charcoal produced of waste wood is of better quality than the regular option. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Like Otoke, 20 other women are involved in the same economic activity of recovering waste wood from the sawmill for charcoal production and trade. While previously they operated as individual producers, since 2020 they have been receiving support from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the European Union to uniting as an association, which is called AFEVADES (Association des femmes valorisatrices des déchets de scierie). The goal is to help them increase their share in the local wood fuel market.

“Pooling our resources allows us to become more profitable and expand our activities,” said Otoke, who was elected as the president of the association. Its members are now saving by jointly hiring help for the heavier tasks and renting equipment such as cartwheels. With the extra income, they can send their children to school and sustain their households.

Charcoal production is traditionally a male-dominated sector in the DRC, but Otoke and her colleagues don’t mind defying gender stereotypes. In fact, recent research by CIFOR shows that women are gradually taking on a bigger role in charcoal value chains across sub-Saharan Africa.

   Picking up waste wood at the CFT sawmill. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   The association pays for help to transport the wood to their field. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Efficiency matters

Apart from improving its commercial skills, CIFOR is also working with AFEVADES to increase carbonization efficiency. Without formal training, its members have had no option other than learning-by-doing. However, with small innovations that they are now being taught through a participatory training program, such as leaving space for air to circulate in the kiln, or covering the wood with leaves, yields can be much higher.

According to Otoke, with the same amount of wood that they formerly needed to produce three bags of charcoal, they can now produce six bags.

   The women sort out the wood by species and size to ensure optimal yields. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   Maintenance of a kiln. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Engaging the private sector

For CFT, cutting down on waste is part of its corporate social responsibility. “In 2013, as part of our long-term sustainability efforts, we started selling our waste wood to individual women for a small fee, and with that money we fund other environmental and social activities,” explained Karim Ammacha, CFT Managing Director.

The creation of AFEVADES opens new opportunities. “Now that they have structured their business, we can formalize our collaboration and support training activities through CIFOR,” said Ammacha.

   CFT employees cut the waste wood for AFEVADES members. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   The next challenge for the association is to increase production capacity. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Increasing capacity

The next step for AFEVADES is expansion, according to Otoke. CFT is planning to double its milling capacity this month, which means that the monthly waste wood they produce will increase from 250 to 500 cubic meters – an opportunity that they are ready to take advantage of.

However, there is even more growth potential. Located in the middle of the tropical forest, Kisangani is an important artisanal logging hotspot in the country.

“If we can help them find a logistically feasible way to recover the waste of small-scale sawmills, the women could significantly increase their production capacity,” said Georges Mumbere, a junior wood fuel expert with CIFOR. “The more charcoal they can produce with wood residues, the less trees will have to be felled.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
This research was supported by the European Union.
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