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A Soros-Backed Project To Get Rid Of Dirty Charcoal Cooking Fuel, And Create Jobs In The Process

African farmers make money burning trees to make charcoal, which then pollutes the air and makes people sick. What if, just maybe, those farmers grew crops that had a positive impact?

In many parts of Africa, indoor cooking with charcoal is commonplace–a big problem both because of the environmental consequences (deforestation) and health issues (respiratory disease and death) that arise as a result. CleanStar Mozambique, a for-profit company, wants to eliminate the practice while creating jobs and helping out local farmers in the process.

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The company, which this month announced a round of nearly $9 million in investments from the Soros Economic Development Fund and the Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries, describes itself as “an integrated food, energy, and forest protection business that works with farmers to grow a variety of crops that it then processes into food and cooking fuel products for sale in local markets.”

Translation: CleanStar helps farmers move away from subsistence farming to more sustainable practices of farming. Their excess crops are bought by CleanStar, which processes them into food and ethanol (for cooking fuel). Cassava is turned into fuel, while other crops–beans, sorghum, pulses, and soya–are put into packaged foods. The fuel is produced at CleanStar’s biofuel manufacturing plant, and both the food and the fuel are sold in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. CleanStar has its own retail outlets in the city, which also sell ethanol cookstoves.

CleanStar–also funded by CleanStar Ventures, Novozymes, ICM, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch–has been around for just two years. In that time, it has converted almost 700 farmers to a restorative crop rotation system. By the end of this year, the company aims to serve 10,000 households. By 2014, CleanStar hopes to help 80,000 households transition away from dirty charcoal.


There are compelling reasons for Mozambique residents to be excited about this: Charcoal prices have been rising over the past few years, and farmers have the opportunity to make significantly more money–approximately $1 a day for producing charcoal versus $5 a day for sustainable crop production.

There’s also a big potential market for CleanStar. “The charcoal market in Africa has an annual revenue of $10 billion U.S. dollars. If we can scale this up in Mozabmique and replicate it to other parts of Africa, that’s quite a potential business for investors to get into,” says Thomas Nagy, executive vice president at Novozymes.

CleanStar is far from the only organization pursuing charcoal alternatives in Africa–other options include solar cookers and natural gas stoves. But, says Nagy, “most other solutions have no offering for those who will lose their jobs in the current charcoal value chain.” And preserving jobs is key to getting any society to accept a new technology.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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