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Djiboutian Potter Uses Waste Oil

VITA News, April 1988

Five years ago VlTA's Djibouti Energy Initiatives project was approached by the director of the electric utility concerning the possible utilization of about 40 cubic meters of waste motor oil a month that they were paying to have carried away and discarded. VITA was familiar with the use of motor oil as a fuel for heating stoves and small furnaces, and proposed that the head of the Djibouti Pottery Cooperative, Mr Syad Mohammed, travel to Tanzania to see a pottery kiln there that burned waste oil and which might be applicable to Djibouti.

As a result, with help from the project and a loan from the Djiboutian Caisse de Development, Syad Mohammed set up a small-scale ceramics industry using a waste oil fired kiln. Since that time he has operated a successful and growing business making bricks and tiles for the local market. He also produced the bricks used to construct the project's demonstration buildings.

Last year VITA's counterpart organization ISERST (the Institutes Suprior d'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques et Techniques) talked with Syad Mohammed about his new tools.

You started out as a potter and now you are making bricks and other building materials. Can you tell us about those products - and the ones you are planning?

The basic demand is for different types of ornamental tiles (claustras) which are used in fences for new constructions. In addition, small bricks (9 x 11 x 22 cm) have started to appear more and more on the market traditionally reserved for cement blocks. As far as the tiles are concerned, although still new to the market yet, they should become a significantly important material in the middle term. Wall coverings, paving stones, etc represent other possibilities. Among the projects undertaken this past year, I should mention the house of the Quartier 3 chief, which was built with 9 x 11 x 22 cm bricks, the main facade of the National Armed Forces Headquarters built with claustras tiles, the ornamentation of several gas stations etc.

Your business endeavour is original in two ways. Can you tell us why?

Well, for one thing, my business is the first of its type to make local fired clay building materials in Djibouti. For another, it puts to use as a fuel a material that until now has been wasted. The judicious recycling of used motor oil, through a simple, small scale process, makes it possible to burn it in order to heat the oven, which in a few hours can reach temperatures of 1,000oC. I should point out that otherwise the oil is disposed of by burning it at a place 10 km away from the city of Djibouti, thus running the risk of polluting the environment.

Explain to us, if you will, the various stages of your production process.

The first stage consists of carrying the selected type of earth to the production site. Then, it must be sifted manually to eliminate the coarse limestone or gypsum grains. The third stage deals with transporting the earth by conveyor belt to the crushing rolls. Then, the material goes through a controlled process of manual humidification to enable the mixer to prepare the paste. The final stage is to desperate, and cut the final product. The products are carefully covered and stored in warehouses to dry for a period varying from a few days to several weeks, according to the types of products. Once the products are dried, they are placed in the kiln in such a way that they can be fired.

In order to use the kiln, it is essential to preheat the burners, which are two-level iron plates slanted into the combustion chamber. Preheating the burners can take up to 15 minutes. The drained motor oil has to be cleaned using a fine strainer to eliminate any solid impurities and decanted to eliminate any liquid impurities - mainly water. The cleaned oil is then mixed with clean water at the rate of four drips of oil for each drop of water. The mixture flows through a hole in the burner and is sprayed onto the preheated plate, where it ignites with a noise similar to a drop of oil falling into a hot pan.

The combustion produces a large flame that is introduced into the oven thanks to the draft created by an appropriate chimney. With several burners placed in the same kiln (seven in my case) and a manual adjustment of the air and mixture flows in relation to the temperature, the firing process takes about 8 to 10 hours.

How did you happen to begin to use the waste oil in the first place?

I had used a small gas oven to fire ceramics in my pottery workshop. It was when I met Steve Hirsch, then VITA representative in Djibouti, that he suggested I use drained motor oil for fuel instead of gas, which was very costly for me. The idea was originally developed by Ali Sheriff, a Tanzanian businessman VITA had worked with earlier.

I found the process very interesting - in fact, I fell in love with it. Then, in the framework of the VITA-ISERST energy initiatives project, Mr Hirsch arranged for me to go to Tanzania to spend two weeks with Mr Sheriff I learned a lot during my trip and became so motivated that I decided to build a small kiln using drained motor oil, thanks to the full support of VITA and ISERST.

A lot has happened since you began using the new kiln hasn't it?

The first kiln produced a lot of smoke and needed 15 hours for its temperature to reach 700oC. It took a good deal of experimenting to get it to the point where it operated properly. Then later on, inspired by an invitation from Mr Hirsch I decided to try my hand at firing bricks. Part of Mr Hirsch's project dealt with energy-efficient construction, and he asked me to participate by producing building materials from local clay. It was in many ways an extension of my expertise as a potter.

This new endeavour was not without difficulty either. Actually, I first dealt with the firing process of compressed bricks when I decided to build two kilns. Then, after some research about the type of material to be used and the preparation process of the brick before firing, I was able to set up a small workshop to produce local terra cotta building materials. Today, the business has seven workers and produces different items, such as semi-cylindrical ornamental tiles, small bricks etc., which have become known on the Djiboutian market of construction materials.

What other problems did you face while trying to make your business succeed ?

Well, they were numerous and varied. The most serious, as I've indicated, was to build the first production kiln. This took me a whole year. Then, it took me a fairly long time to identify a very good quality clay deposit. Once again, I must say that the efficient support provided by the VITA-ISERST Local Building Materials Project was necessary and very helpful to me.

What major problems did you run into during the equipment installation and production start-up-phases?

I had no problem at all installing and starting the equipment and machinery. On the other hand, I am still having problems with the adjustment of the honeycombed brick production equipment. I have had better luck with the brick drying process, which I was able to solve thanks once again to the support I got from the ISERST Local Material Project.

Now that your business has been producing for over a year, do you think that you have mastered the various steps of the production process?

With experience of more than a year, I can honestly speak as an entrepreneur who knows his equipment and its possibilities and as an artisan who was able to master completely all the phases that are necessary for the processing of fired clay.

You have depended heavily on drained motor oil as your major source of energy. Is the quality appropriate and do you have enough of it to meet your needs?

For the time being, I have no reason to worry about that since the type of oven I developed uses a small quantity of drained motor oil - 200 litres for a kiln charging of 12 cubic meters of 1000°C.

What is your present capacity, in terms of casting, storage, and firing? What are your projections for production?

Right now, I have a 12 cubic meter oven. Another, a 20 cubic meter one, is being built and will soon increase my production capacity to 30 cubic meters of products per week.

What are your mid and long-term projections for your business?

Up until now, I have always sold all my products and still had awaiting list of orders. I am convinced that my earthenware products, of which I am legitimately proud, will have no difficulty at all to find a good niche in the Djiboutian market where cement continues to dominate without any challenge whatsoever. But the cement has to be imported. Without trying to mortgage the future, and optimist as I am, I trust that time works for the success of local materials.

You recently returned from Europe. What did you learn from your top?

That trip, funded by the European Economic Community, enabled me to visit several brick-making plants. I was particularly interested in the burners and in the forced heat flow within the oven. However, the very high cost of such equipment led me to consider artisanal solutions that are much more within my budget.

After two years of work and experience, what kind of advice would you give a person who would decide to follow the same path that you did ?

Be patient and don't give up.