Charcoal Production

In March 2011 we started our first batch of charcoal at Beer-Sheba. It has been a very interesting process for myself to be involved with because to me I have never really thought much about the process. Charcoal was just one of those things you buy beside the road for your barbeque. What surprised me most is the amount of work required to turn wood into charcoal. (Read more about the science on Wikipedia.)

During the first week of March, I spent 3 mornings in the bush with the chainsaw pruning and trimming trees.  Many of the acacia trees have 2 to 3 trunks coming from the base so we cut the extras off, along with the bigger branches at the bottom, and voila, we have wood to put in the charcoal pile and a nice looking tree that will continue to grow!  The goal was to attain 20 steres of cut wood in 1m lengths. (1 stere = 1m x 1m x 1m) The target we were told was to cut about 75 medium acacia trees to meet this requirement. I cut down just over 100 and as we found out there is some ‘interpertation’ into what is classified as medium. With the trees we cut down we ended with 17 steres.

After I had cut the trees down and fought my way through the thorns to cut the remaining bigger branches into 1m lengths, our guys Gabby and Mbounda finished off the tedious work of cleaning and cutting the remaining branches with their machetes.

Next was the process of bringing all the wood out of the bush and piling it where we would construct our first pile (meule). Fortunately for us, the wonderful young men and women from the Faylar church once again came out to help us. Without their help we would have had to hire 10 guys for 4 days to do what they did in one day. With the 40 young adults that came out we had all the wood out of the bush and stacked neatly by about 3pm!!! Amazing the power of numbers and we are so grateful for those who come and volunteer their time for this project. As is custumary, we had a big meal prepared for all at the end of the day.

A few guys stayed on the following days for some more formal training using the charcoal production technique we are using at Beer-Sheba. We are using a method that was developed in the Southern Senegal region of Casamance.  It is nearly 30% more efficient in the amount of charcoal produced using the same amount of wood! Obviously this fits nicely into what we are trying to do with our forestry management program and we had a very knowledgeable expert from the Casamance come up and do the training for us this past week.

Below is the step by step process in photos. For more detailed info on this method that was published by GTZ, download here. (it’s in French)

After wood is brought out of the bush, it is piled in 4 equal size piles

All of the acacia wood was brought out of the forest by horse/donkey cart

young and old helping us out

some of the ladies loading the cart on the work day

After all wood was piled, we dug down in the dirt/sand 20-30 cms and put to the side to be used for covering the pile at the end

here is a diagram that illustrates the different methods. with the casamance method there is improved and contained air circulation for increased efficiency

another diagram illustrated the construction of the pile with all the different layers

measuring the volume of each pile. length x width x the avg height

first layer, medium sized wood in a spoke extending out with a 2m radius, small circle in the 'hub' for the ignition fuelwood to go as the pile grows

first layer, medium sized wood in a spoke extending out with a 2m radius, small circle in the 'hub' for the ignition fuelwood to go as the pile grows

next layer on top of spoke is small branches in a circular pattern to form the floor

hole in the middle where the ignition fuelwood will be placed

next is another layer of medium wood spoked out, starting to build for a conical shape now

adding the first bit of fuelwood in the center

after adding all the big pieces, another layer of medium pieces, we capped it off with another layer of small piecs

next step is adding all the hay to cover the pile, it will provide the barrier for the sand

3 horse carts full of hay covered the pile, sand comes next

making the opening for installation of chimney

chimney going up

covering the entire pile with sand to provide an airtight combustion chamber

made a fire on the side to provide the coals that we placed down the center hole at the top of the pile to ignite the dry fuelwood we had placed in there as we built the pile

houston, we have ignition!

we left an area free of sand on the base of the meule to improve circulation for the initial light off

now the pile needs to do its thing for the next 4 days, and after that, voila, charcoal

after 4 days, starting to uncover the finished product!

piles of the charcoal set apart for cooling

our excellent trainer from the Casamance, Mr. Ousmane Gomis