ROCKS OF FIRE

They are cheaper, read­ily avail­able, smoke-free, burn for longer and could mean forests re­main in­tact

The East African - - OUTLOOK - By PAUL TAJUBA Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

Uganda’s search for a source of fuel other than char­coal.

For more than 10 years, De­nis Matembe had been roast­ing chicken over a char­coal stove in Kam­pala’s Wan­degeya sub­urb.

His work starts at 4pm, when he lights the stove and ends late in the night. For years, he used up one sack each week, de­pend­ing on the qual­ity of the char­coal. Qual­ity char­coal takes a long time to re­duce to ash and there­fore de­pends on the kind of tree it is pro­duced from such as mvule, mango, and shea nut.

How­ever, the gov­ern­ment has now banned the felling of these tree species for char­coal.

In 2016, Matembe’s boss, Joseph Kalema, heard of some­thing called “won­der rocks.” Mr Kalema, who owns and op­er­ates sev­eral chicken roast­ing stoves in dif­fer­ent parts of Kam­pala, which spent at least Ush600,000 ($160.25) on char­coal per month, was told the rocks would re­duce his char­coal bill by more than 75 per cent.

“The cost of char­coal con­tin­ued to in­crease while the qual­ity remained poor. I heard about the vol­canic rocks and sought to find out if they would work for me,” Kalema said.

He soon re­placed Mr Matembe’s old stove with the mod­ern Eco Stove.

“It sounded ridicu­lous and un­be­liev­able. How can stones cook?” Mr Matembe re­mem­bers ask­ing him­self.

Like reg­u­lar char­coal, these rocks are stacked in the stove and char­coal dust is spread lib­er­ally atop them. Twigs of pine or any highly flammable species are then in­serted in the mid­dle of the rocks and lit with a match. Within min­utes, the stones catch fire and it spreads through­out the stove.

Be­hind these won­der rocks is Eco Stove, a com­pany that is work­ing with sev­eral women’s groups. The founder of Eco Stove, Rose Twine, says the firm has em­ployed 17 women’s groups, each with a mem­ber­ship of 12 in Kisoro district, to ex­tract the rocks. The groups are given startup cap­i­tal and trained in ex­tract­ing the rocks from the hill­sides. The stones are trans­ported to Kam­pala and stored at the com­pany fac­tory in Bu­jjuko, on Mityana Road.

Here, the rocks are cut into dif­fer­ent sizes to suit the en­dusers’ stove size. For in­stance, the rocks des­tined for use in in­sti­tu­tions are nor­mally big­ger com­pared with those for do­mes­tic use.

The blocks are then dipped into hot wa­ter for a few min­utes, and left to dry for at least one week, a process that pre­vents them from emit­ting sparks when they are fi­nally lit.

Ms Twine said the rocks only work in the so­lar-pow­ered Eco Stove, which comes with an in­ter­nal air sup­ply sys­tem that helps heat up the rocks. The stove is also fit­ted with an onoff switch that en­ables the rocks to burn when turned on, and cool and re­turn to their nat­u­ral state when turned off. The stove comes with a ra­dio, phone charger and has two lights.

Un­like char­coal which burns down to ash, these rocks can be used mul­ti­ple times with­out los­ing their power or tex­ture.

Do­mes­tic stoves re­tail at Ush200,000 to­gether with the rocks while a “bag” of the rocks alone sells for Ush35,000 for do­mes­tic use and can last up to six months.

Ms Twine says since the stove does not emit smoke, those us­ing it are pro­tected from in­door pol­lu­tion.

“They [rocks] do not pro­duce smoke, burn for a long time and you do not need char­coal any­more,” she adds.

“We seek to help groups that utilise these rocks. The law does not stop peo­ple from ex­tract­ing sur­face rocks found in places such as Karamoja, Mbale, Kisoro and Rukun­giri dis­tricts for home use,” Vin­cent Kendi, an of­fi­cial from the Min­istry of En­ergy and Min­eral De­vel­op­ment said.

“If their activities are reg­u­lated, this can be an al­ter­na­tive source of en­ergy. You see what char­coal and fuel wood ex­trac­tion has done to our forests,” Mr Kendi added.

Chris­tine Akello, Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Man­age­ment Author­ity deputy ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, said the author­ity does not reg­u­late vol­canic rock ex­trac­tions.

Min­istry of Wa­ter and En­vi­ron­ment data shows that nat­u­ral forests out­side pro­tected ar­eas de­clined by 35 per cent (from 3.46 mil­lion hectares in 1990 to 2.3 mil­lion hectares in 2005).

A 2017 Joint Wa­ter and En­vi­ron­ment Sec­tor Re­view Re­port es­ti­mates the coun­try’s forest cover at nine per cent.

The de­cline has been blamed mainly on the coun­try’s de­pen­dency on fuel wood to cook and power small in­dus­tries.

More than 90 per cent of the house­holds in the coun­try de­pend on fire­wood and char­coal as their source of en­ergy for cook­ing.

Vol­canic rocks burn for months, but even­tu­ally, they lose power and you add few new ones and con­tinue cook­ing.” Rose Twine, Eco Stove founder

Eco Stove com­pany staff sort the vol­canic ‘won­der’ stones into var­i­ous sizes at the fac­tory in Bu­jjuko, Kam­pala. Inset: The Eco stove once it is lit. Pic­tures: PAUL TAJUBA

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