Interview with Suleiman Mzungu, SUJA

Sunday October 15th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Suleiman Mzungu, Co-founder, SUJA

Location: Tanzania

“Changing the practice of cooking with charcoal is complex”


As part of the plan to make charcoal from more sustainable sources, Suleiman Mzungu and Jacqueline Proneth are passing by the sugar cane sellers of Dar-es-Salaam, collecting the empty husks thrown aside. Collecting sugar cane husks also solves a percentage of the waste management of the city. They stop by people’s homes, to see if there is any charcoal dust left over from their use in the cookstoves. “I’ve seen charcoal be used since I was born,” says Mgunzu, who met Proneth at a training course in the summer of 2016; within a month, they had set about starting their own social business. ‘SUJA’ is taken after their own first names.

However, before consolidating their business plan and applying for all of the relevant permissions – they have the interior ministry, the national environment council and the Tanzanian authority to tackle – they need to essentially be their own production line. And so the founding team are collecting raw materials, storing them in the Proneth family home, and following the due process to make cleaner energy materials for cookstoves.

Mgunzu reels off the statistics: 90% of Tanzanian forestry is cut down to produce charcoa; 500,000 sacks of charcoal a month are consumed in Dar Es Salaam alone; the government halted charcoal production in 2013, but later realised later that as an illegal activity, it employed over 60,000 people (according to the Biomass Energy Strategy of Tanzania report). Changing the practice of using charcoal with such mitigating factors is complex,”admits Mgunzu. The fact is, that Tanzanians rely on firewood and charcoal heavily; both are readily available as affordable sources of electricity. Finding an alternative, and helping people have a different perception of using electricity, presents a challenge. “We had to come up with ways to ease the minds of people and convert their usage.

One solution is to come up with packaging for an alternative energy source which could conveniently and easily be sold in supermarkets; usually, charcoal is not sold at supermarkets, and comes in sacks. Proneth and Mgunzu asked some mothers, who need charcoal to cook traditional dishes including beans, maize and rice, what the resource was like. “They cannot predict the quality of the charcoal they buy until they start using it. They complained that the price they pay does not correspond to the quantity they get; it’s not fixed.” A sack of charcoal is 60,000 Tanzanian shillings, 3-4 USD.

With research and analysis of the magnitude of the problem out of the way, the next step for the SUJA duo is borne out of curiosity – what could strategic solutions be, to produce more efficient charcoal, or an equivalent of cleaner resources, and protect trees? Training is important, as is using a prototype and gathering feedback. Since the duo have backgrounds in finance and human resources, the engineering stage was greatly improved with the help of a mentor from Nairobi for seven weeks of training “after class”. “It was then that I really learnt how much energy efficiency could work,” says Mgunzu.

The secret, Mgunzu feels, is to do lots of reading on energy experts and economists, and see how other competitors work. “Our main competitors use coconut shells as their raw material, and I had to foresee what future competitors might use, like rice husks. Depending on a single raw material can be a mistake, in case it depletes, so we decided to depend on a variety of materials, wood pieces, agricultural wastes, sugar cane husks and charcoal dust included.”

These raw materials go through a five-stage process in making a sustainable charcoal plate, beginning with carbonation (aside from the charcoal dust), to activate the combustion with oxygen. “We grind them together to create a fine powder, although not entirely as we want to avoid ash production. We’ve created a ratio which is 2:1 (kilos of charcoal dust with small pieces of charcoal). We use a binding agent, cooking moderate porridge out of cassava, which has to be medium-density so that it also does not smoke. After boiling it we mix it with charcoal dust. We don’t have the machinery to compress the mixed charcoal dust, so you get surprised at what we use!”

On a soft surface, the duo squeeze the bottom of a mosquito spray can onto the dust to get the shape for a unit. They then place this on an iron sheet, where it heats up and distributes effectively. “We put them in the sun for drying, so the drying process fastens over two to three days. They don’t crack this way.” The team also created a sticker with the name, weight of the charcoal package and price, by boiling wax and mixing it with kerosene to dry it into stick shapes, which they pack them into the charcoal bags to light up the charcoal. “We don’t want people to use paper or unsafe methods, but the wax stick,” adds Mgunzu.

The first tester of the product seems to have been won over. “Jacqueline’s mum was very surprised,” laughs Mgunzu. “She said, can this really cook!” Mgunzu and Proneth produced 300 pieces in their first day, and gave Proneth’s mother 28 pieces. “Jacqueline was the chef, the rice and stew cooked well, and when I went back her mother was still surprised – how did this stuff cook?!”

SUJA is now formalising the business with certain procedures. The Tanzanian Bureau of Standards will do a safety test; the ministry of energy will assess the sources of raw materials; the national environment council has its guidelines too. The team have produced 15 bags and took them to 20 chosen respondents for one week, as piloted in their home towns of Mabibo and Tabata, and are collecting feedback still. “There are many challenges still,” says Mgunzu. The next step will be to partner with a clean cookstove company.

Nabeelah Shabbir @lahnabee