A search for compelling sustainability narratives, transformative business models and pathways towards a circular & regenerative economy — www.linkedin.com/in/renildebecque
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, more than a 1000 waste pickers work the city’s only landfill, often working long hours in unhealthy and hazardous conditions looking for anything with value that can be reused or resold. An estimated 60-70% of Cambodia’s waste can be salvaged for reuse or recycling, however in the absence of a formal waste diversion system waste pickers play a vital though ill-respected role in closing the loop on the country’s resources.
Equally, in past decades Cambodia has been witness to rampant deforestation, with wood often being harvested illegally to provide for demand from industry as well as for cooking. Up to 80% of Cambodian households use wood or charcoal as their main fuel source, resulting in a 100,000 ton of charcoal being used annually in Phnom Penh alone. With natural resources in the Mekong region being under increasing pressure, companies like the Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) literally provide a spark of hope for greening local economies.
SGFE, established through a partnership of two locally operating NGOs (GERES and PSE), started production of char-briquettes from organic waste in late 2009. The company mainly employs staff who have never held formal employment before, previously making a living from waste picking. SGBE provides them with above-average wages and a range of benefits such as insurance and paid leave.
As of November 2014 the company had 25 employees and was selling about 45 tons of briquettes per month, up from just 5 tons a month in 2011. An achievement attributable to Carlo Figà Talamanca, formerly a consultant to SGFE who decided to take over the business as owner and CEO after SGFE -previously run as a non-profit- was still struggling financially by end 2011 and at the brink of closure.
SGFE buys local biomass waste materials which would otherwise be dumped or burned. It uses them to produce ‘Premium’ briquettes, made from 5% coconut shell char and 95% char residues from wood-fired electricity generation and ‘Diamond’ briquettes, made from coconut char only. The briquettes are sold to retailers, restaurants and food stalls, with the ‘Premium’ brand retailing at a similar price to traditional charcoal however excelling in performance and with no toxic air emissions. The ‘Diamond’ brand sells at a premium albeit is popular with low-income food vendors due to its long burn-time, ease of handling and storage, and the ability to extinguish the briquette at close of business for use again the next day.
The coconut char at SGFE is produced through pyrolysis. An improved kiln is used with minimal venting of toxic gases, a major environmental problem with traditional charcoal kilns, while most plant is locally manufactured and maintained, striving for continuous efficiency improvements. The briquettes have proven a real hit with local cooks, allowing SGFE to expand and install additional capacity in order to double monthly production and sales to at least 80 tons / month by end 2015 – equivalent to saving about 10,000 mature trees a year while cutting back on carbon and local air emissions.
This year  will also see SGFE joining efforts with NGOs GERES and SNV to provide a ‘bundled’ offer to customers of improved cookstoves with its char briquettes, as well as to pilot rice husk pellets as fuel. With ample availability of ‘waste feedstock’ for its briquettes, a competitive offer and a business model that delivers a triple bottom line win, SGFE serves therewith as a promising example for the more sustainable use of natural capital in South-East Asia’s rapidly developing economies. SGFE and its ‘little char briquette that could’ is a winner of the 2014 Ashden Awards.