Toronto woman wins prestigious honour for ‘green’ charcoal

A Toronto-based company is behind the development of a cleaner burning alternative to charcoal, which it hopes will save the lives of millions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some 4.3 million people, predominantly women and children, in developing countries die every year due to diseases related to the air pollution caused by the burning of wood charcoal. Lumbrick, which was started by four McGill University students in 2016 has developed an alternative manufactured entirely from organic household waste. The result, they hope, is a clean burning fuel source with the potential to uplift thousands of people.

“We want people to use it just like they use (wood) charcoal,” said Ghalia Abdul-Baki, 25, the company’s chief financial officer, who hopes to gauge reactions to the product this summer when she visits Kenya where the “green” briquettes have already been distributed in villages and communities lacking access to electricity. 

Lumbrick’s innovation is already turning heads; the company has received mentoring from World Vision Canada, and Abdul-Baki was named as a recipient of a prestigious entrepreneurial award given out by Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit which partners academics with industry and government to promote research and innovation. 

The company is also in the running for the Hult Prize, a prestigious research grant bestowed by the Clinton Foundation to global start-ups working for social change. Lumbrick has a chance to make the competition’s top six later this year.

Currently, Lumbrick is partnered with a Kenyan company to produce the briquettes, which can take upwards of five days to produce depending on the season. 

The production is mainly done by hand, with waste scraps like corn cobs, sugarcane and banana peels first collected from markets, dried and then burned into ash. The ash is then crumbled to a fine powder resembling sand, before being combined with cassava starch, which acts as a binding agent, and water. The product is finally placed into a special machine and cut out into briquettes.

“It’s a very labour-intensive process,” said Abdul-Baki.

To cut down on production time, Lumbrick spent the last year developing special machines to further automate the process of manufacturing the briquettes.

“The thought process is you take the briquette in whatever form it’s in, put it in the machine and whole carbonization process is completed in a few hours,” said Abdul-Baki.

Should the briquettes prove a success, the company plans to further distribute them to other sub-Saharan countries, and eventually southeast Asia and parts of South America, where wood charcoal is currently relied on as a cooking source for impoverished people without access to kerosene or electric stoves.

The eco briquettes developed by Lumbrick, says Abdul-Baki, burn longer and require fewer to cook compared to standard wood charcoal and firewood. Given a quarter of family income could go towards cooking fuel in many impoverished countries, mass production of a clean burning alternative could prove a game changer.

Should the product prove viable, Abdul-Baki didn’t rule out introducing it to wealthy nations like Canada in the future, but she said the focus remains on developing nations with large groups of impoverished people with no ready alternative to wood-burning cooking.

“There’s a lot of benefits to using clean burning briquettes,” she said.

By: Rahul Gupta