Refugees turn human waste into cooking fuel as alternative to protect trees and combat climate change
Uganda was losing approximately 90,000 hectares between 1990 and 2010 of forest cover annually. Photo by Fredrick Mugira

By Robert Ariaka December 30, 2019

A group of South Sudanese Refugee women in Arua district is manufacturing briquettes out of human waste to serve as alternative to wood fuel and charcoal.

Briquettes made out of human waste takes up to 8 hours to burn making it easy to cook compared to firewood,” narrates Roda Selwa, a youth and member of Loketa Women group turning human waste into fuel for cooking.

Loketa women group is one of the five groups in the settlements of Rhino-Camp, Imvepi, Omugo and Bidibidi through Oxfam that benefited from skills training on making charcoal briquettes.

Mary Ajonye the chairperson of Loketa women group explains how the Charcoal Briquettes are made in different sizes ranging from the smallest to the biggest Photo By Robert Ariaka

The initial training focused on making charcoal briquettes out of solid waste generated from crop residues. However, the women adopted new skills of turning human waste into charcoal briquettes after attaining training in Nakuru Kenya.

Tabu Regina, the secretary Loketa women group in Ariwa village in Rhino Camp settlement said, the group got support from Oxfam to make briquettes using crop residues and human waste.

The briquettes are made out of sorghum stalk, Simsim stalk, beans stems and banana leaves. “We carbonize the residues, once it turns black; it is crashed with machines and mix with porridge made out of cassava flour to form briquettes” Regina said.

Rashid Mawejje, the public health promoter working with Oxfam said they spent Sh373.3m in training, procuring the equipment and providing the necessary support for the refugee women.

Mawejje said Oxfam supports five groups in the initiative of charcoal briquettes. “Recycling solid waste from crop residues was the starting point, but now the women have ventured into processing human waste to charcoal briquettes,” Mawejje said.

Regina is optimistic, once expanded; briquette making environmentally helps reduce on too much tree cutting.

She urges Government to support groups that are ready to make briquettes and partner with implementing partners in the refugee settlements to increase on training more youth and women groups to combat climate change.

The youthful, adults and elderly women in the groups use their hands to feel the mixed component for compaction. Once it is ready, the women compact it to form charcoal briquettes at different seizes from the smallest to the biggest.

Besides the solid waste briquettes, the group has now ventured into making charcoal briquettes using treated fecal slag. Oxfam supplies the treated fecal matter from Lira.

The members appeal to Oxfam to construct a processing plant for human waste in the refugee settlement to ease access to the human slag for consistent supply.

A store has also been constructed by Oxfam for the women to keep the charcoal briquettes as they source for market.

She confirmed that, the women started making the briquettes in 2018. Along the period, the women have improved their economic status and save some money in the group SACCO.

The group takes advantage of visitors to market the products in the settlements alongside the potential market during food distribution time where refugees after getting money buy briquettes.

“Right now, we do not go to the bush to collect fire wood because of risks associated with collecting fore wood. Some women are raped in the bush while looking” Regina said.

Farming as additional livelihood means.

Simsim is the main cash crop grown in the area a reason the group ventured into Simsim farming. The group uses the residue from the harvested crops for making briquettes.

Regina said, charcoal briquettes preserve the environment a reason they keep educating the community to use briquettes and stop cutting trees.

She appeals to partners working in the refugee settlement to extend a support of distributing tree seedlings to the refugees to plant and restore the environment.

According to Regina, charcoal briquettes are cheaper, burn longer and accumulate enough heat to cook. It also keeps the saucepan clean while cooking.

She said the process of cutting trees to make charcoal is tiresome. “We have seen people who make charcoal suffer but making briquettes is easy with less effort” Regina explained.

She said, making charcoal briquettes provides jobs for women and youth in the refugee settlements. Loketa women group has 40 members who are self-employed through briquettes making.

The women make more than 300 briquettes in a day and market the products within the settlements and other parts of West Nile region.

Savings in VSLA

Regina says, profits realized from the briquettes helps group members manage their home needs, pay school fees for children and save the balance in the Village Savings and Loans Association VSLA.

The group hires land to cultivate Simsim and use the proceeds for expanding on their savings but use the crop residues for making more briquettes. The members are able to borrow money from the savings and pay with interest to boost the savings.

Some members have ventured into business after borrowing money from the group. The savings group has improved the life of single mothers, disabled, widows and those married.

“We support each other as group both financially and psychosocial a reason we need more financial boost from organizations and increase the group savings and borrowing capacity” Regina requested.

Regina says, when all the group members want to borrow money, the money is not enough a reason she thinks government and implementing partners should be able to support and boost the Savings group with more funding.

Currently Regina is managing a salon in Ariwa which she started after borrowing 300,000 from the savings group.

Regina also works as a hygiene promoter in her village takes care of 9 people. Other activities the groups undertake include knitting, bakery, and making beads with designs. The products are sold to staff of NGOs working in the refugee settlements.

Mary Ajonye, the chairperson of the group said, charcoal briquettes helps control massive tree cutting. She said, cooking with charcoal briquettes made out of fecal matter reduces expense buying firewood and charcoal.

Ajonye said women who have scheduled their cooking well can prepare breakfast, lunch and even cook supper using the briquettes made out of human waste without adding more pieces.

The women sale the briquettes from Sh1,000 to 3,000. The briquettes help them avoid risks of snakes and raped by men in the bush.

Ajonye who also works as a teacher pays her child in Sir Andrew Primary in Arua town a boarding school. She also managed to establish a small kiosk that raises her more money.

Ajonye, a mother of 3 adopted three other children adding the number to 6 says her husband is not working, but she manages the home. The man helps her in home activities and manages the small garden.

Jennifer Cana, a P.6 pupil in Ariwa Primary told InfoNile.org , she sales food ration to buy firewood for cooking.

A bundle of firewood costs Sh3500 a reason she says charcoal briquettes are better.

Jennifer Cana, P6 Pupil of Ariwa Primary school in Ariwa village Rhino camp Refugee settlement cooking beans using firewood, She sales food ration Photo By Robert Ariaka.

Neima Gaba a refugee mother of one child said before the introduction of charcoal briquettes, she would rely on firewood and charcoal made out of wood.

“When Oxfam introduced briquette making machines, I abandoned firewood, I now use charcoal Briquettes that last longer in cooking than wood” Gaba said.

She says briquettes make women feel relaxed and do other works while they keep cooking food.

In Rhino Camp, two groups benefited one group from Imvepi, two groups in Bidibidi.

Making briquettes out of fecal matter come after the group visited Nakuru in Kenya to learn more skills.

Oxfam has secured a place at Yoro base camp to construct a modern processing plant for human waste to help provide materials for the women to make more briquettes.

The plant will be constructed alongside a chess pool emptier to collect fecal matter from different institutions to supply the plant.

Transport will also be procured to transport the processed and treated fecal matter to supply the groups for easy production.  

Tricycles will be a component of the plant to support the refugee women access market and sell their products within the settlements. The need for capacity building, market strategy, community engagement and mapping out key stakeholders will help widen the campaign to protect the environment, provide alternative energy source and promote agriculture sector.

Mawejje said there is tremendous change in the lives of the individual group members who generate income from selling the products to manage their homes.

Making charcoal briquettes reduces on massive tree cutting and saves environment to combat climate change.

Mary Ajonye right the chairperson of Loketa women Group in experimenting how Charcoal Briquettes work in locally made energy saving stoves Photo By Robert Ariaka.

Mawejje said issues of climate change is a global matter that comes with changes in rain patterns a reason all stakeholders need to provide attention to environmental protection and provide alternative energy source.

“If we keep talking about environment and tree cutting without providing alternative sources of energy, it adds no value” Mawejje said.

Oxfam also ensures environmental laws and aspects of water are considered in its projects. In Rhino camp, 65 group members have been able to benefit, Imvepi, 25 members and 50 members in two separate groups in Bidibidi with each having 25members.

Above Ground Biomass AGB

In 2018, a Woody Biomass Survey and Mapping was conducted by World Agroforestry Center ICRAF in Rhino Camp and Imvepi refugee settlements in Arua district.

The total area under survey was 138,615.96 ha and the Above Ground Biomass

AGB for year 2018 was derived from the data collected in March 2018. The mean stock (dry weight) was calculated in tons per hectare.

The total Above Ground Biomass available was found to be 1,678,748.46 tons in the whole area including the 5km buffer. The AGB specifically for trees was 1,397,046.39 tons and 281,702.07 tons for shrubs.

The AGB for Rhino-camp was 501,972.95 tons, 194,045.31 tons for Imvepi and 701,028.14 tons for the buffer of 5 km

Between 2015 and 2018, there were changes in land cover classes. Some LULC classes reduced while others increased. These changes caused significant change in AGB in the settlement area.

Between 2010 and 2015, AGB increased by 96,680.10 tons possibly because of the woodlots established in the previous hosting of refugees and between 2015 and 2018, there was loss of 522,255.76 tons. In the last three years the AGB loss was found to be 522,255.76 tons.

There is high woody biomass degradation in the settlement area. Between 2010 and 2015, there was woody biomass enhancement through establishment of woodlots leading to increment of 96,680.10 tons.

However, between 2015 and 2018 wood biomass situation became very critical due to increased use for firewood, building poles, brick making, and charcoal and timber production.

This has caused a loss of 522,255.76 tons within a period of just 3 years. Meaning the annual woody biomass loss is 174, 085.25 tons. Given that the total biomass available in the settlements excluding the buffer is 696,018.26 tons, if the refugees were to rely only on the biomass within the settlements, it would take them only approximately 4 years. This therefore calls for immediate action to enhance woody biomass stock in the settlement areas.

The possible way of enhancing woody biomass stocks in the settlement areas to meet the increasing demand wood resources could be one or more of the following options; Restoration of degraded areas through tree planting, management of natural regeneration, control of illegal harvesting of big trees like Afzelia, Mahogany and other tree species for logs and timber. 

The need for control of wild fires that hamper natural regeneration of the wood land species is important in protection of the natural cover in the refugee settlement.

Restoration done

Jackson Olema, the program manager for Rural Initiative for Community Empowerment RICE West Nile said, in 2018 in an effort to restore destroyed trees and natural cover in refugee settlements RICE planted 317,000 trees in an area of 288.18 hectares.

This has been consolidated with more plantations in 2019 where RICE West Nile planted 1,041,729 trees in an area of 890.75 hectares.

The plantation follows destruction of natural cover in the refugee settlement to restore environment and natural cover.

This article was published with financial support of InfoNile and the CIVICUS Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator.