Thursday, September 30, 2010

Accessorizing Sustainability- An Economic Model for Forest Conservation

Cutting raw Palpretto logs from a sustainably managed forest. Every tiny piece of these logs will be used for something.

Small offcuts after the logs have been processed.

Turning the offcuts into small cosmetic jars

American model and activist Summer Rayn Oaks showing off the finished jars filled with sustainably harvested forest oils for skin care, made by subsidiary Bom Oils of Mozambique.

I have just returned from another trip to Mezimbite Forest Center, a project run by Ashoka Fellow Allan Schwarz. Schwarz has been pioneering projects around the city of Beira, Mozambique from his small replanted forest grove. The area has been hard hit by deforestation for the energy trade. Most of it has fallen for charcoal, to power the stoves of the rapidly growing urban population. This area is not unique. Throughout Africa, as I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a massive problem with deforestation.

Cosmetic jars for the Bom products, like lip balm, all made from wood offcuts from forests that are managed sustainably.

Charcoal is the main form of energy for most rural and urban households, and this has driven the continuing destruction of the forests. As the forests "run away" the cost of getting the charcoal into the cities rises, and the cost of charcoal goes up, making it more lucrative to cut the trees. It is an energy cycle that is completely un-sustainable, since virtually no one is replanting the forests. No one except for a few individuals like Schwarz.

He runs the biggest network of nurseries in the region which have been used to replant forests under his care. He pays for this by carefully removing certain trees from these well-managed forests and employing former charcoal cutters to be trained as skilled wood turners. Communities then see a greater value in their forests than making charcoal and have managed to keep some of them standing.

Tables for the European Market

One aspect of Schwarz's operation is value adding along the supply chain. Instead of selling this sustainable wood harvest at a premium, he has a working mill that employs between forty and a hundred people at any one time.

Every tiny little scrap of wood is used for something, from crochet needles for the eastern market, make-up compacts for American women, to bangles and jewelry for the French. A tree that falls for charcoal will end up being valued at roughly $1.50 for the end product of charcoal, and only 25 US cents for the cutters. With Schwarz's model however, a single tree may net thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, with that money equitably distributed to communities, workers and crafts-people. A craftsman at his facility earns about 250$ a month, more than twenty-times the average income in Mozambique.

Knitting needles made from wood offcuts at the Mezimbite Forest Center

Value adding at a local level is driving projects like this around the world. Schwarz believes that only by including local communities in this value chain can he create awareness that forests are more economically productive as a healthy system than as charcoal. Communities are the only guardians of their forest resources, but they must benefit directly, and in Mezimbite they are included as an important part of an economic system that puts special products in the hands of environmentally aware consumers.

Far from being clunky symbols of green, the art he and his team creates is sleek, gorgeous and just happens to make the world a better place. Go to his website, or the AD Schwarz design site and explore some his designs. This award winning designer, architect and forester has created a model of sustainable design that symbolises the finest of African conservation and craftsmanship.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Homegrown Wind Power For Africa

What is an appropriate technology transfer from the western world for African villages? The answer, as Bob Dylan suggests, is blowing in the wind, at least on the Mozambiquan coastline. Jason Morenikeji explains in this short film.

These are big ideas, and they deserve a good hearing. The film I created is short but there is scope here for a much larger conversation (and a longer film- anyone interested to help?) about cross-platform sharing and sustainable power solutions that are not only in the bush but atop our apartments, houses, and even cars.

Jason, who is here in Johannesburg for an investors conference, suggests that power solutions, offered by companies like his, should be comprehensive and utilizing all available forms of generation. No wind? Use your solar panels. Stormy day? use the wind. As a back up for important medical equipment or in case of an emergency, have a basic diesel generator that can be turned on. In some sites, near hills or mountains, it is possible to put a small hydroelectric generator in as well.

These are not pie-in the sky technologies. As Jason shows us in the video these things are being crafted using local resources and skills even in the most back-water places of the world. A local pilot project using a hybrid system of wind and solar can pay back the cost of the system in saved diesel fuel in eighteen short months. Far from being over-priced or too complicated to maintain, these are the systems of the future, investors take note.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Creating A Sustainable Energy Future For Africa

Today in Africa there are many people working to make a difference and create a future for the continent that is based on sustainable energy and resource conservation. These dedicated individuals are battling against artificially low energy costs, red tape, and the continuing degradation of lands and resources. Many times their battles are private, and their successes unknown and uncelebrated by any but a small group directly surrounding the projects. But these small kernels of hope have within them a profound ability to affect change in a positive way in Africa and the rest of the world.

Energy in Africa is derived from burning trees, a whopping 91% of the continent gets it's energy in this way. Deforestation is rife, with some countries losing 5 to 7 percent of their trees every year, and its getting worse. This is a loss to everyone on planet Earth, since our oxygen and carbon dioxide know no borders. When forests are destroyed, so are all the animals and rainfall systems that depend on them. In African's search for energy to cook their meals the destruction of her environment is sown. When the trees are gone, rainfall drops, crops whither and die, and more pressure is put on the few intact ecosystems and forests. Any project that seeks to address this spiraling devastation is worth investigating and sharing. Some stand out as examples of "best practice", and I am following these projects and the people behind them in order to share what makes them so successful.

In Johannesburg, the South African company Sunfire Solutions has developed a solar plan: to get out into Africa and distribute solar cookers. If you think these machines are too clumsy, too difficult to use, or hard to set up and maintain, wake up to Africa's energy future and watch this short movie.

These stoves do have problems, the most pressing is their cost. To address this issue, Sunfire Solutions has developed a business model that utilizes private donations, non-governmental organization's (NGO) funding, carbon trading and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Each stove can directly stop eleven tons of CO2 going into the air each year, as well as remove more CO2 from the air by preventing the destruction of Africa's woodlands.

Another problem is their distribution. Crosby Menzies, the Director of Sunfire Solutions is putting together a team to take their solar cookers on the road, traveling from South Africa, to Mozambique then on to Zimbabwe and maybe Malawi. Already they have been distributing their cookers in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, and have had a great response. A video piece by Tina Stollard is up on their Youtube channel. Along the way they will stop at small and large communities, showing how to use the stoves and distributing as many as they can. They also hope to make contact with NGOs and small businesses in the areas they visit, leaving behind a distribution system that works for the long term.

As a small part of the change that is happening in Africa, Menzies is passionate about what they are doing. He has wagered his own financial future on the success of solar cookers in Africa, and believes that the change he is helping to bring about is vital to the future of the continent.

Traveling around Africa for the last three months working on a Multimedia series with Global Post called Energy Entrepreneurs has opened my eyes to the incredible potential and possibilities that exist here for people with drive, vision and hope. They should be an example to all of us to be the change we most want to see in the world.