Sustainable Cooking Source

In just about every Malawian home, you’ll find a wood/charcoal burning cookstove. These appliances are essential for cooking and boiling water for drinking and bathing. Because electricity is so spotty here, and completely nonexistent in many rural areas (click here to read a blog post I wrote that goes more into detail about the power situation), wood and charcoal burning is really the only alternative. Malawi was once a forested nation, but slash and burn farming practices, brick firing, and wood/charcoal fueled stoves has lead to great deforestation. We have friends from Mzuzu (northern Malawi) who told us that when they were kids they’d see bushbucks (like deer) and other animals living in the forest surrounding their home, but now the animals and the majority of the forest are gone. This sadly, is the case for most of Malawi.

One of the big problems in Malawi is a lack of steady income. Many people end up selling charcoal. During harvest, people can sell their excess crops, but after that they resort to selling charcoal. While this is illegal, not much has been done about it. If you get pulled over at a police checkpoint and have two or so bags of illegal charcoal in your vehicle, the police don’t do anything about it. It’s a tough problem because people need the charcoal to cook, but because very little efforts have been made to reforest the harvested sections, Malawi is losing its foliage.

Now enter the paper briquette! During the Feast we went to the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary and I saw a sign on their bulletin board promoting a nonprofit that teaches women how to make and sell paper briquettes so they can support their families in a legal and sustainable way. I thought it was neat, but didn’t really think much on it until recently (wish I had taken a picture so I could remember the non profit’s name!). We bought a charcoal stove about a month ago because the power has been going out for extended lengths of time, and we like to eat. But, we knew we wouldn’t buy the illegal charcoal and the charcoal in stores is insanely expensive, so thankfully I remembered the poster!

We’ve been experimenting with making paper briquettes. So far, we’ve made hand pressed paper ones, can formed cardboard ones, can formed paper ones, and large can formed newspaper pulp ones. We still have some experimenting to do so we can find out which type works best, but I’ll attach some pictures of what we have so far.

While doing some research on charcoal burning and the problems connected to it, I found an interesting restoration strategy for 2017-2027 that was published by the Malawian government. The government is planning on cracking down on illegal charcoal harvesting and selling. That *potentially* means charcoal will become more expensive due to the increased risk of harvesting and selling. Paper briquettes are basically free to make, so they can be sold at half the price of charcoal ensuring more customers. And it just so happens, we have a store front! If these paper briquettes work out well, this could mean extra income for families.

How to make paper briquettes

Tools needed:

  • Large bucket
  • Can with the top and bottom lids removed
  • Bottle that fits as flush as possible in the can
  • Cloth if there’s a lot of wiggle room between the bottle and can
  • Mortar and pestle

The Process:

  1. Find paper or cardboard and rip it up into pieces
  2. Fill a big bucket with the paper or cardboard shreds
  3. Fill with water and leave to soak for at least 24 hours (we found that the paper is ready in about 24 hours but the cardboard took closer to 72)
  4. Stir occasionally to help break up the pieces
  5. Now here you can go to step 6 if your paper is soft enough, or you can mash it up into a pulp with a mortar and pestle (or a coconut shell and coke bottle in my case J)
  6. Once it has soaked long enough take your can and fill it up with the slurry (without packing it)
  7. Press it down with a bottle multiple times until there’s no more water coming out and you feel like it’s compacted enough
  8. Push out of the can and leave to dry in the sun
  9. Once it’s fully dry you can use it as charcoal!

We’ve been having fun experimenting with these! We don’t have a preferred technique yet because we’re still experimenting. Right now our briquettes aren’t burning as long as charcoal briquettes, but if we find a way to press the briquettes harder I think they’ll burn longer. Yesterday morning I made a large briquette out of the newspaper pulp (first one made out of pulp) with a hole in the center to help it light faster. The pulp left less space for air inside the briquette, thus compacting it farther. We’ll see how it turns out!

If any of you have made these before or have any ideas on how to make them better, please let us know!

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Typical Malawian kitchen with a stove, pot, scouring sponge, mortar and pestle
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Kitchen staff at camp cooking and heating water for bathing over fires
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Area in Mzuzu that I was told used to be a forest
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Cardboard and paper briquettes
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Newspaper pulp briquette
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My surprisingly capable mortar and pestle
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Roasting tomatoes for salsa over our paper briquettes
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It worked!
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6 thoughts on “Sustainable Cooking Source

  1. Will be praying about the paper briquette project. Sounds like a good way to help everyone make a living and conserve resources. Do you ever have access to a paper shredder? The smaller the pieces the less time to soak and the more like mush. Know that from making paper mache. God Bless you in your efforts to serve. Appreciate the time you put into sending us updates of your life with our brethren in Malawi.

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