As Viphya Plantation shrinks amid fierce scrambles for vanishing trees, reality is sinking that much is going to waste.
Travelling between Mzimba and Mzuzu City, vast bare grounds pop into view as bent logs, smouldering stumps, sawdust heaps, cutoffs and other rejects flash past.
The remains personify decades of harvesting the trees for just logs and timber, leaving branches, tops and other usable residues to burn or rot.
Now, Raiply Malawi Limited, which processes wood products on a lush 20 000-hectare bloc in the country’s largest manmade forest, wants an end to this wastefulness.
‘Largest of its kind’
The company has installed machines valued at $1 million (K821 million) for making briquettes from both forest and mill waste.
“This project is the largest of its kind in Malawi, but there are similar briquettes plants in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda,” says factory manager Meher Meher.
The new factory located almost 10 kilometres south of Chikangawa will produce about 120 tonnes of the substitute for firewood, charcoal and coal on the local market.
For Meher, the briquettes promise efficient use of the trees at risk of partial ultilisation, illegal logging and summer fires. He reckons the country cannot continue to chuck off usable forest material while struggling with energy poverty personified by overdependence on firewood and charcoal, which leaves trees burning.
“The maximum capacity is estimated at 2.5 tonnes per hour from wood chips, lops and tops, sawdust and veneer cut-offs,” he says. “All the offerings from the new factory will be sold locally to ease pressure exerted on dwindling forests.”
Nearly 98 percent of households in the country cook using firewood and charcoal, according to the 2018 census.
‘Use waste wisely’
Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo commends Raiply for setting the pace in putting a greater part of every tree to good use.
She states: “Even the government was worried that most parts of a tree were not being put to good use.
“When we asked our colleagues at Raiply, they shared their plans to start making briquettes as a way of putting the residues to productive use, but their machines were stuck in transit due to the coronavirus pandemic. I am glad to hear that plant has been installed and will be launched soon.”
Tembo dials up briquettes production as quick solutions to the burning of charcoal and firewood for cooking and heating.
“As a ministry, we are encouraging all producers of waste to use it better by, among other things, producing briquettes that can replace charcoal and firewood which have destroyed our forests. I am glad that companies such as Raiply and Salima Sugar Company have started using their waste wisely,” she states.
The billions going down the gullies in the fast-disappearing Viphya Plantation come clear as free-for-all logging on its northern half of the forest has left loggers without any more trees for making timber. From the treeless side dotted with sooty stumps and sawdust mounds, the affected timber makers are desperately agitating for a share of Raiply’s forested zone as their businesses stagger on the brink of collapse. Strikes, ultimatums and rumbling negotiations with the Department of Forestry have become buzzwords for the protracted battle for Chikangawa.
Tembo says the country cannot continue to lose trees for timber alone.
“I hope that briquette production can be scaled up because it is a business that can reduce pressure on our forests. Most Malawians cook using charcoal and firewood because they have no alternative. If we get people to use briquettes, we will create a viable market which will help the business grow and save trees from the insatiable appetite for charcoal,” says the minister.
In her mind, the brains behind the new factory at Raiply see the new machines welcoming and grinding waste from the sprawling plantation and existing factories, conveyer belts lifting the fine material to be sorted and molded into briquettes ready to burn like coal and charcoal when dried.
Raiply expects the briquettes factory to create 60 jobs, with three shifts working eight hours each to satisfy the forecast demand.
According to Meher, about 70 percent of the labour force will be unskilled and 30 percent skilled supervisors, forepersons, engineers and managers.
“This will, in many ways, ease the problem of unemployment in the country as well as contribute to the building of a national critical mass of skilled and technical experts in the field of wood processing and biomass value addition,” he explains.
The new jobs will help keep the wood processing zone clean and free from air pollution. The company generates 208 tonnes of mill waste a day and the heap usually burns, polluting air, degrading soil and charring living things under fire.
With briquettes production, the leftovers will no longer burn, but get milled for making the new charcoal—with little going to waste.
“The biomass briquettes plant will utilise and reduce the amount of waste currently being generated from the forest and sawmills,” states.
The waste-to-energy plant will help tackle the burning question about environmental impacts of biomass for cooking and coal for running manufacturing industries struggling with on-off electricity supply. The latest census shows that just about 12 percent of Malawians access grid power—notwithstanding frequent blackouts that slow industrialisation and job creation.
“It is expected that the remaining 40 percent of the total mill waste from flashboard manufacturing will be converted into briquettes,” says Meher, counting the gains: “Apart from reducing air pollution due to burning that occurs at the solid waste disposal site, it will increase government revenue through taxes on briquettes sales.”
Raiply started operating in the plantation in 1999 after sealing a deal to manage a 20 000-hectare plantation owned by the Department of Forestry. It procures trees from the State-owned plantation for the production of timber, furniture, plywood, fibre boards and treated poles.
The race to turn forest waste into valuable products was first tested at its export processing zone, which crushes branches, bent trees and cutoffs to pulp for production of plywood and other products for the international market. Tembo is expected to launch the briquettes factory next Tuesday.