| Boiling Point No. 01 - Special Edition 1989 |
Khartoum Workshop 23-26th October 1988
Ian McChesney - ITDG
This paper looks at the potential for briquetting projects to impact on the urban poor. I regret that we have to talk in terms of 'potential', but few projects have yet achieved any specific results in terms of impact on the urban poor. As a starting point we perhaps ought to try and define both of the terms 'impact' end 'urban poor'. We also have to talk later about direct impacts which relate specifically to household cooking practices and about indirect impacts which may be rather more widespread. But let us first start with household cooking.
Cooking and the Urban Poor
We all have a reasonable idea of poverty. We know that poverty is not a single condition. Some people are poor because they have a lot of dependents; others are poor because they have very low incomes. However, there is one common feature of poverty. Food preparation takes up a significant proportion of the household effort. The poor cannot afford to sit and eat in restaurants and cafes. They have to cook for themselves and they have to make the effort not just in terms of obtaining the necessary food, but in the whole process of preparing, heating and cooking it with fuel and fire.
We can identify three groupings:
Group 1 - The very poor have the hardest task. They do not have the money to purchase fuel. They have to rely on whatever can be obtained from city waste that will burn. It is also unlikely that they will have anything but the most simple of outdoor fireplaces on which to burn this waste.
Group 2 - Those who have some sort of income may be able to buy fuels and may also have invested in a proper fireplace. Their purchasing decisions, however, will always be made carefully and will certainly involve spending the minimum amount of money. Incomes will be low and uncertain and this means buying small quantities of fuel and buying the cheapest quality fuel.
Group 3 - Poor people with more regular incomes can budget and plan a little better. They may be able to buy and store slightly larger quantities of fuel and thereby obtain it more cheaply. They may also have a more versatile indoor cooking place and be more concerned with smoke and emissions from the lowest quality fuel and with improving their kitchens.
Further up the poverty scale the issues start to become more complex. It is often true that cooking with higher grade fuels can be cheaper. For instance, kerosene may produce a cheaper meal in terms of fuel costs than firewood. Poorer people are clearly attracted to this, but face two problems. First the investment cost of the more expensive stove required to burn these fuels, and then problems over access to the supply of fuel itself.
Poor people will also not want to tie themselves in to only one type and source of fuel. This will make them vulnerable to fluctuations in availability and prices of that fuel. The fireplace, or stove design, should ideally be capable of burning as wide a variety of fuels as possible. Stoves that can only burn efficiently with one fuel, or in one cooking duty, may be cheaper to run, but will appear risky investments. A strategy of diversified fuel supply is more attractive than lower running costs until the family is rich enough to be able to afford several different types of stoves.
An added complication to the question of fuel prices and cooking costs is the change in diet and eating habits which usually occurs with city people. Urban people find that time is one of their most precious commodities and, apart from anything else, that time spent cooking and eating traditional meals can no longer be afforded. The introduction of bread and tea to the diet can substitute for one or more meals. These are just as likely to be bought by the side of the road as produced at home. Purchased bread and purchased tea therefore become part of a changed pattern of snack eating. Clearly the issues of poverty and the effect this has on cooking are complicated and require careful analysis. Much of the above analysis is, as you probably guessed, based on personal observation. I would have liked to quote other more knowledgeable sources, but there is little unbiased observation of the plight of the poor and their responses to constraints on cooking and fuel use. Without such an understanding of these responses it might seem difficult to design projects that are likely to have a positive impact. But we can make a start.
Making an Impact on the Poor
We began by trying to observe poverty and its effect on cooking practices and continue now by looking at the question of direct impact of briquetting projects on the urban poor. I would like to suggest that this must lie in one of only three areas:
Lower Cost Fuel:
The poor would benefit if fuel were more cheaply available to them. This would allow those on very low or irregular incomes to reduce the tedious search for free fuel and to start buying fuels. For those already buying fuel, cash expenditure would be reduced.
Better Value for Money:
The cost of fuel in cooking depends on the way that it burns and the ease with which it can be used. If fuel can be improved by making it more regular in shape, or by making it light and burn more easily, then fuel can be used more efficiently. This can translate directly into cash savings even if the fuel is more expensive, because less of it is needed. As such, the fuel represents better value for money.
The poor rely on low cost fuels and, where possible, materials that can be freely collected. Any alternative activity that places a higher value on cheap fuel and free materials will have a serious effect on the poor.
The Direct Impact of Briquetting on the Urban Poor
We have taken a very broad view of the poor, how they set out to cope with urban cooking, and what might be expected to make an impact on their activities. It is of course a very different problem in different places. Urban areas retaining large animal populations have surplus dung which is often used to bind other materials together to make substitute fuels. The use of dung is widespread and is a simple form of briquetting. Normally, however, when we say briquetting we generally mean some form of mechanical process, whether by manual press or motorised press. Dung briquetting is almost entirely hand pressed. We also normally mean by briquetting some sort of business activity involving purchase of equipment and sale of products, not just self production of briquettes by poor people for their home use.
Nevertheless, the whole area of dung moulding of briquettes is an important one for the urban poor and bears further investigation.
The advantage of dung briquettes is that they significantly improve the quality of the fuels available to the poor. This does not necessarily show up as monetary advantage as described above as "better value for money". The raw materials may be free. But compacting loose fibres, dust etc. wite dung enables them to burn in a similar fashion to firewood ea. jute sticks and dung in Bangladesh, and so become practical as a fuel. The poor are widespread users of this type of fuel and have developed the technology involved - moulding, drying and storage, to a considerable degree - and have benefited accordingly.
For cities with low animal populations this approach cannot be advanced and briquetting means a mechanical press and a commercial approach although there is the possibility of moulding charcoal dust into briquettes. This can be on quite a modest scale, or by means of a centralised plant producing large quantities. It may involve the production of fuel specifically for the household market or it may be that there is a household use for a fuel primarily intended for industrial, or institutional, use.
Potential household users from the poorer groups will treat the briquettes as only one of a number of sources of fuel. That means that they are unlikely to invest in stoves or fireplaces specifically designed to burn briquettes. Briquettes will be burnt as if they are wood or charcoal - the two main forms of solid fuel. This has proved to be a considerable stumbling block for briquetting projects. Most briquettes require a new stove specifically designed to burn them properly and this stove design is so specialized that other fuels cannot easily be burnt in it. One exception to this is the Noflie stove introduced in the Gambia as a hriquette/wood burner, but this does not have a very high fuel efficiency.
Using currently available briquette technology it is not just the limited combustion capability of briquettes that restrict the opportunity for them to achieve greater impact in the fuel markets, it is also a question of price. Briquettes are invariably more expensive than wood. In a paper presented to the 1987 ITDG Briquetting Seminar, Roland Louvel argued that briquettes will have to sell for significantly less than wood.
Another interesting feature mentioned in this paper is the practice of combining briquettes with other fuels. Briquettes are used as a supplementary fuel on the burning fire. This eliminates the necessity of buying a special stove. While technically a simple idea, it is significant in that it is primarily a response by the user to try and take advantage of the new fuel. Few briquette manufacturers actually advocate using their products in combination with other fuels. Another anomaly in the production of briquettes is the apparent absence of scale economies in manufacturing costs.
Relative Costs of Briquette Pressing
Based on the cost of pressing 1 tonne of briquettes and assuming a 10,000 hr machine life (no interest charges) and comparing a labour intensive process - Testaram press - a mechanised screw press and a conventional power press.
Based on single Testaram press operated by a crew of six costing $2,000 to buy and taking 10 hours to make a tonne of briquettes ie. 1.67 working days. Total cost per tonne 110 Sudanese £.
Based on a screw press costing $10,000 and requiring 2 operators and consuming 100 kWh/tonne. Total cost per tonne 114 Sudan £. Power: Based on a DESTEC press costing $240,000 and requiring 40 kWh/tonne and 15 workers. Total cost per tonne 72 Sudan £.
In order to make the coatings more comparative, it would be necessary to include an interest element for the power press which @ 15% would amount to an annual charge of £144,000. Assuming 2,000 hrs/year @ 3 ton/hr this would add an extra £24/hour making the total a more realistic £98/ton.
The interesting point to emerge from this analysis is the relatively small cost differences between the processes. On this basis, there is little apparent economic advantage to scaling up, particularly if the extra costs of transport of raw materials and distribution of briquettes are taken into account.
However, the manual process would employ 12 times the number of people needed for the power press which would also have heavy foreign exchange costs.
Bearing in mind the restrictions of specialised stoves, the relatively high costs and limited availability of briquettes, we can return to considering the potential for briquettes to impact on the urban poor in the three identified categories:
Lower cost fuel:
Briquettes are unlikely ever to be a lower cost fuel, ie. cheaper than wood. The main opportunity lies in situations where firewood prices have risen greatly. But here market forces apply. Unless briquettes form a significant proportion of the fuel supply in the market, then they always tend to be sold for the highest price possible ie. above wood.
The table above suggests that increasing the scale of briquette manufacture does not appear to significantly reduce the cost of production. Larger briquettes are cheaper to make, but less useful as a fuel and scale dis-economies such as increased transport costs generally offset any reduction in factory cost. However, large scale briquette availability is likely to affect the market response to briquettes. Rather than being seen as a rare speciality fuel, they will be seen as a more common fuel and this will help to keep prices at, or near, the level of competing fuels such as fuelwood.
The issue of price is not, of course, as straightforward as this. Fuel is normally traded in volume measures, as well as by subjective weight, and perceived quality. A simple cost per ton is a crude, but useful, indicator.
Where scarcity has driven up the price of firewood, for instance in Addis Ababa it is US $80/ton (1988), briquettes can provide an alternative fuel. Here a serious effort is being made to organise residue briquetting to provide a significant percentage of future fuel supplies. Without special marketing arrangements however, it is unlikely that the briquettes will be sold any cheaper than wood.
If briquettes have an advantage as a fuel it is that they can be made with consistent quality and regular shape. This is particularly true where the briquettes are intended as a charcoal substitute and generate less waste. They are also likely to be dry and so, as a wood substitute, have a higher calorific value. These advantages translate into potentially easier fire management and reduced fuel consumption. If this requires a specific cooking device then the necessary investment is likely to prove a barrier to adoption by poor people. To benefit the poor, the new stoves will have to be made available very cheaply, or consume a wider range of fuels than just briquettes, or perform effectively enough to pay back their investment very quickly.
Briquetting projects are conceived on a wide variety of scales. Some try to address the local needs for fuel from local resources. Others attempt to address the national fuel problem. In most cases the briquetting will be based on cheap, or apparently unused, raw materials. Where these have an alternative use as a fuel, as might be the case with sawdust, the potential can be for a negative impact on the poor. Briquetting effectively transfers fuel resources from the low value end of the market where they benefit the poor to the high value end where they don't.
It could be suggested that employment would be important to the poor groups. The manufacture of briquettes can be quite labour intensive. But this may not necessarily take place in the urban areas. However, the storage, distribution anti retailing of briquettes is labour intensive and does take place in the urban environment. To the extent that briquette fuels increase the traded volume in the fuel markets, there will be an increase in employment. More likely, however, will be the replacement of other fuels by briquettes. In this case the gain made in briquette handling is likely to be more than offset by the loss of other fuel activities. The poor are unlikely to benefit, but where other fuels are becoming unavailable, this would happen anyway.
The implications for direct impact on the poorer groups are becoming clear:
Group 1 - is unlikely to benefit
Group 2 - may benefit if stove investment is low
Group 3 - could benefit if aware of the opportunity
The indirect impact of briquetting on the urban poor
An area where the urban poor will see a significant impact from the manufacture of briquettes is not directly linked to their household activity. This will occur where briquettes provide fuel for industrial use. Fuel, for instance, is a major factor in the cost and availability of construction materials such as bricks and lime. Where briquettes can relieve this constraint, the production of building materials can be maintained, or increased. Fuel manufacture will create employment opportunities, but the use of these materials also creates a demand for labour on building sites etc. Where the buildings themselves are to he used for hospitals and schools other benefits can possibly arise. An example of this effect can he seen at Kassala where the production of bagasse briquettes for industrial use has started. Many of these jobs are unskilled manual jobs, but they will be welcomed by poor people who need work.
Fuel is also a major cost in the preparation of processed foods such as bread. Briquettes may not necessarily be the cheapest fuel to buy, but they may offer lower running costs by virtue of being a better fuel than existing supplies of lower grade firewood. The poor could benefit in this case by the lowered cost of bread.
There is potential for briquetting projects to impact on the three groups of urban poor we have recognised:
Group 1- likely to benefit only indirectly through employment but may lose out by diversion of free fuel resources to briquetting.
Group 2 - may benefit directly if the briquettes do not require a new stove, or if the new stove is cheap enough.
Group 3- should benefit directly if the briquetting project specifically sets out to reach this group.
So far, few briquetting projects in developing countries have yet demonstrated an ability to sustain themselves commercially. As a consequence, the impact to date on the urban poor has been slight. This is partly because of difficulties in producing good briquettes and designing suitable stoves.
This paper has tried to show that it is possible to predict the potential impact of briquetting projects on the urban poor. It must therefore be appropriate in designing briquetting projects to target these groups, and not to focus just on the techniques and commerce of briquetting. We can, and should, make briquettes make life easier for the poor.