December 2015
For What It's Worth

Carbon Roots

Huge piles of processed sugar cane to be charred  

Anyone who has ever flown over Haiti in the Caribbean Basin will tell you they have a severe deforestation problem with long-term environmental and natural resource consequences. In the early 1900s, over 60 percent of Haiti’s land was covered with trees; by 2006, less than 2 percent of the land was forested. The denuding began during colonial development of the 1600s and intensified when coffee production was introduced in early 1700s. Throughout the 19th century (post Haitian revolution) the government was forced to export timber to pay off a 90 million franc indemnity to France. Forests in the mountainous areas were cleared and 50 years later a quarter of the colony’s land was under coffee. These hillside soils were particularly susceptible to erosion when cleared for farming. The system of plantation monoculture and clean cultivation between rows of coffee, indigo, tobacco and sugarcane exhausted soil nutrients and led to rapid erosion.

Around 1954, logging operations were accelerated in response to Port-au-Prince’s (nation’s capital) intensified demand for charcoal. This rampant deforestation transpired in conjunction with environmentally unsound agricultural practices, rapid population growth and increased competition over land. No management or reforestation plans were ever developed or implemented to reduce this consequential impact.Anestimated 15,000 acres of topsoil are washed away each year and erosion also damages other productive infrastructure such as dams, irrigation systems, roads and coastal marine ecosystems. Soil erosion also lowers the productivity of the land and worsens droughts, all of which increase the pressure on the remaining land and trees. A sad situation for an impoverished nation, people struggling to eat day to day and the future of Haiti.

  Chopped biomass

Current research indicates over 93 percent of Haitians rely on charcoal and wood as a primary energy source for cooking. Given this predicament, the price of charcoal in Haiti is extremely high compared to most developing countries, so an average Haitian family might spend a significant portion of their income on cooking fuel.

Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Eric Sorenson and Eric Delaney (both from the United States) brought their fundraising skills, global experience and innovative expertise to Haiti. They developed biochar, a soil amendment product made from recycled vegetation designed to improve soil fertility and quality. They then developed the idea of making an alternate cooking fuel source known as green charcoal. Not only did this provide an alternative to denuding the land of trees, it further processes used sugar cane stalks from local processors, and converts them into a value-added product. This project provides sustainable economic benefits and job opportunities for 90-plus people.

Their website pages,, provide the following information:

"Over the course of several years of close collaboration with rural Haitian communities, Carbon Roots International implemented field trails, developed appropriate technology, and ultimately expanded focus to include the production of renewable, charcoal-cooking fuel known as green charcoal. In 2013, we formally launched an innovative, market-based social enterprise model in northern Haiti that addresses deforestation, energy security, rural poverty and job scarcity. Their funding comes from a combination of donations, earned income and grant partners such as Halloran Philanthropies, United States Agency for International Development and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Carbon Roots International is a not-for-profit 501(c) (3) corporation.

Green briquettes being moved out to drying racks  

"CRI has responded to Haiti’s charcoal problem, and the low-adoption rates of many cookstove and alternative fuel initiatives, with an innovative, culturally appropriate fuel called green charcoal. Green charcoal briquettes are made from carbonized agricultural waste, and can be used as ‘drop-in’ replacements for traditional charcoal, requiring no new stove technologies or changes in cooking methods, significantly decreasing key obstacles that plague new cookstove and alternative fuel technologies. Moreover, green charcoal briquettes are cheaper than traditional wood charcoal, which is extremely attractive to energy consumers at the bottom of the income pyramid.

"Consumers in Haiti are proving receptive to switching to green charcoal briquettes. Because the briquettes function the same, and switching to green charcoal saves money while preventing deforestation, Haitians are embracing green charcoal as a viable alternative to wood-based charcoal and wood fuel. CRI’s consumers are quickly recognizing that green charcoal is good for the environment and makes financial sense!

  Racks with green charcoal drying on them

"Based in northern Haiti at an 8-acre production center located outside of Cap-Haitien, the enterprise employs a decentralized network of approximately 99 smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs to produce carbon-rich char dust from agricultural waste such as sugar cane bagasse using kilns.

"At the central production center, the enterprise uses the char dust, a proprietary binding recipe, and commercial mixing and briquetting equipment to produce renewable charcoal cooking briquettes called green charcoal. Following processing, the briquettes are dried and packaged for sale. Biochar has become a byproduct of the production process.

"Green charcoal is sold to two main customer segments: base-of-the-pyramid households and institutional buyers such as schools, restaurants, businesses and orphanages. The enterprise sells green charcoal to BoP customers through a network of women charcoal retailers and institutional buyers purchase directly from the enterprise.

Cured briquettes are bagged; bags are then sewn up for distribution throughout the entire country.  

"The production and adoption of green charcoal reduces reliance on traditional wood-based charcoal, which is one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the developing world, while also creating new jobs in rural areas, and raising crop yields and building soil resilience. Farmers earn new income by monetizing their agricultural waste; women charcoal retailers offer a highly competitive product, enjoy higher profit margins and develop business skills; and charcoal customers have access to a cleaner, viable cooking fuel that is cheaper than traditional charcoal."

These innovative processes have so many applications on a global basis.


Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.