Take a look at this satellite image of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Haiti’s on the western side, the Dominican Republic is on the east. Now look at the border dividing those counties and you notice a troubling detail. In many places, the forests on the Haitian side disappear:
“Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s virgin forests, which used to be 100 percent forested and was one of the richest, most verdant forests in the face of the earth, is gone,” Lewis Lucke, former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, told StateImpact Texas. “And the reason it’s gone is because of the manufacture of charcoal.”
It’s a problem Lucke understands well. He directed the U.S. disaster response in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Now, from his Austin office, he directs a consulting firm specializing in business in Haiti. He thinks one product that could do well is something to replace charcoal.
Jim Booth with UT Austin’s IC Squared Institute thinks he may have found that half a world away, in India, where the institute sponsors a technology contest every year. The winner gets a chance to commercialize their product.
Two years ago something called energy cakes, created by Anil Kumar Singh, won the gold medal.
“The first time that a lot of people hear energy cakes, they think, oh, those are those briquettes,” Booth told KUT News.Two years ago something called energy cakes, created by Anil Kumar Singh, won the gold medal.
But they’re not. Instead they are an alternative to coal that takes recycled cornstalks and other agricultural and industrial waste and bonds it in a secret process.
“What you get is a very, very high-content energy brick that can actually burn three to four hours at 700 degrees Celsius,” Booth said.
Now Booth and Lucke are trying to bring the energy cake to Haiti.
“This is going to be very much going to be oriented towards a Haitian company run by Haitians, hiring Haitians, for Haiti,” Lucke said. “This is not a bunch of gringos trying to enrich themselves, this is trying to work with Haitians and Haitian organizations.”
Haitian-American business owner Eddy Daniels is handling the project in Haiti. “We need equipment, we need capital to build the plant and set up distribution,” Daniels told KUT News. “A few basic equipment should get it rolling.”
He says a trip to India where he ate a full meal with Singh cooked by the cakes convinced him of their value.
“An hour and a half we cooked it, but the cake kept on; you could still keep on cooking,” Daniels said.
The cakes aren’t the only charcoal alternatives trying to find a foothold in the modernizing world, says Kim Chaix. He directs the Charcoal Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for green cooking fuels and safer cooking stoves, and not just for environmental reasons.
“Exposure to smoke and other pollutants from indoor air combustion and cooking is one of the leading killers of women and children around the world,” Chaix told KUT News.
He says people trying to popularize coal alternatives run into many challenges, from keeping the manufacturing of the briquettes environmentally safe to convincing people to actually use them.
“People tend to be very conservative, but when you’re tinkering with the way they’ve been cooking for hundreds or thousands of years, you have to be very careful about what choices you make so that you get it right from the start,” Chaix said.
But Eddy Daniels is convinced his product will sell.
“I drove all the way into the woods where they’re making the charcoal, drove it into Port-Au-Prince, and they said, ‘You know what, whatever you bring we’ll buy,’” Daniels said. “They were desperate to buy my charcoal.”
And if the project is a success in Haiti, there are many other parts of the world, afflicted by deforestation, where cleaner-burning cooking fuels are needed.