An integrated approach to increase charcoal production sustainability in Haïti

Charcoal is a main energy source for Haïtians.  Over 90% of the counties’ energy demand is met by firewood and charcoal. Also the millions of Haïtians that stay in the tent camps after the earthquake of 2010, cook predominantly on charcoal. Consequences are large-scale deforestation, soil erosion and land degradation. It makes Haïti increasingly vulnerable for extreme weather conditions such as floods, mudslides and hurricanes like Sandy, and heavily impacts the agricultural productivity of the land. To halt this trend of deforestation and degradation, the charcoal issue needs to be addressed. Many charcoal projects already exist. However, they generally show two weaknesses: (I) They only impact the consumption end of the value chain. This goes for example for those who promote cooking on solar energy and a variety of efficient cooking stoves; (II) They are not financially sustainable. This goes for a lot of projects initiated by NGO’s and foundations, often depending on international aid and donations. To stop the harmful environmental trends caused by charcoal production, an integrated approach is necessary. It means that social, technical, biological and financial aspects of the problem are all addressed. In addition, the scope is as wide as the whole value chain and the project is financially sustainable. Hard as this may sound, progress is being made in other countries, and it may be time for Haïti to follow up.

The traditional charcoal production method is highly inefficient. A significant amount of wood is burned in order to generate enough heat for combustion, and a lot of this heat is lost in the process. Simple models of retorts kilns such as the ADAM retort are on the market. The construction costs of the oven can be controlled, since it requires only local materials and can be constructed on site. In the retort, hot air is circulated, and heat loss minimized. Results are a highly reduced wood input and a combustion time that is about six times faster than traditional methods. The time that is gained by switching to an improved production method, can be reinvested in another part of the value chain. It would be essential so safeguard a renewable wood input for the oven. Thus, either the harvesting method can be adjusted to Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), or a patch of land can be reforested and assigned for charcoal production purposes. Parallel to the kiln construction and reforestation, more efficient cooking stoves can be introduced in the charcoal consuming communities. This way, three key processes of the value chain are impacted.

A project is financially sustainable when it can keep functioning without being dependent on regular financial injections of third parties. It means that the project should generate enough revenues to cover its own start-up and maintenance costs. This requires a smart business model. There is no recipe for such a business model, there are many options. Private investors and NGO’s could be attracted to invest. The time that is gained by switching to a more efficient and faster production system could be used for other income-generating activities. These revenues could be partially used to reimburse the investors. Also the reforestation project can generate additional funds. With a smart selection of tree species and rotational cutting cycle, many by- products like nuts, fruits, honey, and raw materials for biodiesel could be harvested. Especially in a tropical country like Haïti, forestry can easily be turned into agroforestry, where a diversity of valuable crops is grown in between the tree rows. A project like this is not only a development project to halt deforestation and land degradation; it goes hand in hand with a profitable business. More research is needed about how these ideas can be best implemented in Haïti.

Do you have ideas about how to improve charcoal production methods? Or do you have an opinion about how to implement these ideas in Haiti? Share your thoughts by reacting on the blog post!


  1. Great solution for a country that would need both the product, the reforestation and the ressources.

  2. Thomas Palo says:

    Thank you for the important analysis of the situation in Haiti. I was there on a mission for IFRC in February 2010 and did an environmental assessment. Haiti is not only experience a risk of total collapse of the human society but also a risk of mass extinction of species. The chance for reversing these trends, thereby preventing human suffering, destabilization of the country, and the further loss of development potential are diminishing as the last ecological resources are exploited. The use of charcoal biofuel as energy source is a major link between the society and deterioration of ecosystems. Thus it is urgent to find alternative energy sources in order to release the pressure on remaining forests. In addition, the earthquake has increased the demand of wood for shelter construction that will have consequences with illegal cutting in Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean archipelago. It is a risk that deforestation will spread outside Haiti when demands for wood increases for reconstruction purposes. The country inhabits a rich fauna, with more than 2000 species of vertebrates of which 75 % are considered endemic. The mainland and islands reflect a high degree of endemism. . I see one of the solutions in small scale fermentation facilities for households for production of methane will mitigate the pressure on forests and at the same time give solution to pressing problems with sanitation, demand for fertilizers and energy.


    • Dear Thomas,
      It is an interesting idea to use fermentation facilities for energy production, especially when that process can be used to alleviate pressing sanitation issues in the country. However, as you describe, the direct demand for fuelwood (and construction wood) is high and only rising. It is therefore important to recognise this as an urgent problem and think of ways how to improve the highly inefficient current prodcution methods. Yes, I do agree with you that the next step is indeed alternative, more sustainable energy sources. But in near future, these alternative energy sources are far from meeting the energy demand.

  3. Continuous production of charcoal means cutting of more trees, if these continues we will be facing a very big problem like the climate change and global warming. If they can’t use other source other than wood maybe what I can recommend is to use the charcoal briquetting technology.

    • Dear Neneth,
      You are right: continuous charcoal production means cutting more trees. This is why I propose that a sustainable charcoal project includes reforestation, as to safeguard a renewable energy input. There are several ways to do this, eg. Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), or a short cutting cycle.
      Making briquettes is another option. An advantage of that technique is that you can use waste wood for it. Also, the porcess alows for collection of wood vinegar as byproduct, which could be used or sold. The big disadvantage of briquette-making is that the machine is expensive. As I’m thinking about this as a community project with a financially sustainable business model, it is key to keep start-up costs low.

  4. Charcoal production processes are many and efforts should be made to produce fuel for cooking etc through the use of Raw materials like Municipal solid waste or for that matter any watse which has calorific value how so ever small. One such proces is to produce fuel through the pyrolisis process locally or the Plasma Arc process as applied to Municipal solid waste and all waste that can be laid hand on. Pyrolisis shall give solid waste where as Plasma Arc gives gas. There are research projects on the table which are giving finishing touches to equipments which can be used at home to convert any hydrocarbon to gaseous or liquid fuel.
    I agree that Haiti’s need today is today to look at the solution totally out of the box by bringing in the new technologies to suit the requirement. Have a look at the raw materials available with calorific value and then find ways to use them as fuel. Home cooking is normally low temprature cooking and doesnot require high calorific value fuel.

  5. Hi Ramesh,
    I totally agree with you that using waste, even when calorific values are low, would be a serious alternative to wood charcoal. I also agree with that on the long run, emphasis should totally be on the development of these alternative enrgy sources. The great thing about pyrolisis and Plasma Arc as you describe it, is that it tackles a waste problem at the same time. However, I’m not familiar with these techniques that much, and don’t know the downsides. What material do you need? Are there harmful (gaseous) by-products? I’ll look into these techniques, thanks for the comment!

  6. Grat idea. Are you applying to the STI ACP Call?

  7. Danny Brashear says:

    TLUD gasifiers would seem to me to be an option, but I am not an expert. Have you seen anyone providing these?

    • Dear Danny,
      Indeed do these gasifiers seem like a nice alternative stove, containing the heat properly and thus being superefficient. I also like the fact that production costs are low and you can use even dung and rice husks as fuel. I don’t think the market for this device is developed yet, though, that may be about time.

  8. Rene Jean-Jumeau says:

    Hi Anne,

    Thank you for a very relevant analysis.
    Please note that this has also been carried out by Haiti’s own Bureau of Mines and Energy (BME) over 6 years ago. (See their website: The BME has a strategy which is not well funded and therefore very slow to implementation. It considers: substitution of wood fuel and charcoal, higher efficiency in use, higher efficiency in transformation, targeted areas and species for woodlots and alternative employment for some of the people involved in the charcoal market.

    When both Haitians and internationals will realize how much work Haitians have done and can do themselves, and simply support their own work, Haiti will have gone a long way to sustainability.

  9. Hi Rene,
    Thank you for this information. I was not aware of the BME efforts on this issue. On the site I especially found reports on the substitution of wood charcoal by alternative fuels. I completely agree with you that it is not up to “us”(me : foreigner) to tell Haitians what should be done and how, and I’m not saying it should be foreign bodies doing the work (preferably not!). This blogpost was meant as a suggested approach, because I saw similarities between the situation in Haiti and the situation I know from Mali.

  10. My heroes are the engineers without Borders who have promoted clean cook stoves, Pyrolytic and Gasifing stoves that burn any biomass cleanly and 41% more efficiently. No black-lung no emphysema, no deforestation, all the while building soil carbon for continually sustainable yields. Please look at the work of the Biomass Energy Foundation. At scale, replacement of three rocks in a pot, across Africa would have the health impact equivalent of curing malaria and AIDS combined.
    Biomass Energy Foundation (BEF) website

    For anyone interested in, or confused by, Biochar Soil Technologies, Please view my presentation and slides of this opening talk for the USBI Biochar conference in Sonoma California. This is the third US Biochar conference, after ISU 2010 and Colorado 2009.

    Carbon Conservation for Home, Health, Energy & Climate

    Modern Thermal conversion of biomass burns only the hydrocarbons in that biomass, conserving the carbon for the soil. At the large farm or village scale modern pyrolysis reactors can relieve energy poverty, food insecurity and decreased dependency on chemical fertilizers.

    Please take a look at this YouTube video by the CEO of CoolPlanet Biofuels, guided by Google’s Ethos and funding, along with GE, BP and Conoco, they are now building the reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of bio – gasoline and 1/3 ton Biochar for soil carbon sequestration.

  11. I hope you can review my Sonoma Biochar Conference Report, Concerning other Biochar applications & developments;
    CoolPlanet Biofuels in particular seems, by all accounts, to have a game changing technology, carbon negative bio-gasoline, (production cost of $1.25 per gallon), rolling out this year. The CEOs have already taken the lead sponsorship for the University of Massachusetts 2013, fourth, USBI Biochar Conference, October 13-16, 2013

    New England with U.Mass have fostered grass roots effort, leaders among the Engineers without Borders for clean cook stoves and WorldStove are based there, (now beta testing residential pyrolytic Pelletstoves), Small-scale farming in the area provides the perfect setting for the skid mounted reactors of CoolPlanet, tractors running on bio-gasoline, heck, the whole conference will be the first conference in history to be carbon negative as all Carbon footprints will be more than covered by CoolPlanet & WorldStove. Local Biochar farmers are even catering with their “Cool Food” branded produce.

    Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative

    Hope to see you at this fair,
    Policy & Community Chairman
    2013 North American Biochar Symposium
    Harvesting Hope: The Science & Synergies of Biochar
    October 13-16, 2013 at UMASS Amherst
    Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative

    • Hi Erich,
      An interesting lecture you sent us, thank you for sharing. I like the positive feedback concept, in which crops, biofuel and biochar are produced. It’s impressive how big-scale the pilot projects funded by a.o. BP and google are. The implementation, however, rises a lot of questions. What crops are you going to plant? Is it going to be a monoculture? Is the payback time really 3 years? I support the idea of lifting underdeveloped villages out of poverty with the project bringing revenues from biofuel, crops, employment and energy, but isn’t it too much to expect (as said in the video) people from rural and poor villages to suddenly buy androids and tablets? How are revenues shared? Despite the many questions I have, I think it’s a great way to go. It’s a very positive path to take, and I wish you all the best on your biochar quest!

  12. Hello Anne- Very good analysis.
    Thanks for the reference Rene Jean-Jumeau although my French is a little rusty.
    I agree with Rene Jean-Jumeau that as he stated the the key is funding.

    There are many different Waste to Energy models available which could address the management of waste and renewable energy at the same time. My company is one of these. From the buyer/user’s perspective the technology must be reliable and the system sustainable; from the seller/ implementor’s perspective the funding and feedstock must be there to insure that the system is sustainable and the facility will continue with a good ROI for the investors/ funders.

    The facility would be run and managed locally by Haitians and could be a show piece of what could be accomplished and sustained within Haiti.

  13. I say Amen to that, Frank. I think you’re absolutely right that the key is funding: a solid business model with a good ROI. I’d definately prefer the idea of Haitians taking the lead and management, perhaps with external funding but not executed by an NGO or other party. I think that in these times it is important for Haiti to have successful showcases. Thanks for your reaction!

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  18. Some interesting ideas, but I’m afraid it’s not that simple.
    I am an engineer and have made 8 volunteer trips to Haiti in the last four years. Much of my work is on improved cookstoves: rocket stoves, gasifier stoves, and improved charcoal stoves. These technologies can significantly reduce fuel use, and allow the use of biomass not previously considered fuel. With rising fuel prices, improved cookstoves can be financially viable businesses.
    Most charcoal in Haiti is made on the hillsides right where the tree is cut. The larger bottom logs are cut into boards right there with a pit saw and the rest is chopped, cut, and, charred. The boards are carried out a few at a time. Charcoal is carried out in “feed” sacks. Transportation is by human or donkey. Transportation of whole logs or charcoal feedstock is not really feasible on many of the steep and remote (from roads) hillsides. Much of the inefficiency of charcoal production is because the feedstock is not dried before charring. The water must be boiled off before the wood will char.
    The Adam retort is for biochar production not cooking charcoal. Cooking charcoal is produced at cooler temperatures to keep the tars and oils in the charcoal. This makes it much easier to ignite for cooking.
    There are portable sectional metal kilns that could be used. They are not cheap. Most Haitian charcoal makers are very poor and cannot afford kilns. They probably own an axe, a machete, and a hoe or shovel as their only charcoal tools.
    If smaller wood could be carried out, chipped, and dried, (or dried and chipped) it could be used in gasifier stoves, which can use virtually all the energy wasted in making charcoal and still make charcoal. The charcoal can be used to continue cooking, used as biochar, or saved for later (but difficult to ignite). Google: TLUD or TChar
    Time gained by retort production is start to finish total time, not necessarily actual hours invested. Retorts require more or less constant tending. Artisanal charcoal production takes only a few hours per day.
    Charcoal is relatively cheap in Haiti because the producers do not have a more lucrative way to spend their time. If alternative crops and agricultural techniques were used that returned more money for the time invested, charcoal prices would rise and alternatives, conservation, and more efficient production techniques would be more likely.

    • Hi Bob,
      Thank you for sharing your opinion. I see you have a lot of experience in this area, and maybe more important, the situation in Haiti. You make some good points. I agree that a main disadvantage of the ADAM retort is the immobility. However, I believe it does produce first class charcoal that is also suitable for cooking purposes. The carbonisation process occurs completely by hot air circulation (only a little waste wood is burnt to start the process but no fire is involved in later stages), so i believe tars and oils stay in the logs. You say retorts need constant tending while artisanal production takes only a few hours. I’m not familiar with the artisanal prodcution time in Haiti, but in West Africa a batch of charcoal took about two weeks (of course traditional producution methods differ from those in haiti) and needed constant monitoring, day and night. This was one of the main advantage of the ADAM retort: as soon as you got it started, you could let it do it’s thing and do something else. Maybe we have different experiences on this topic. I think you’re right in that gasifier stoves may also be a viable alternative. I really like your last phrase. Yes, if livelihoods get diversified charcoal prices will most likely rise, which would give more financial space to play with better and more efficient production techniques.

  19. To understand the extent of “tool poverty” in Haiti see:

    Cost and availability of tools
    Tools are a significant expense for farmers in the Central Plateau. Most farmers in the Cange area
    purchase them at the Domond or Mirebalais markets. Total costs for the five main tools used in hillside
    agriculture can run as high as H$280 (Table 7). However, most farmers are unable to afford all of these
    and must share. “Sa-a pou senk moun! Nou prete, prete, prete. That’s for five people! We share, share,
    Tool (English) Zouti (Kreyol) Price (H$)
    Table 7: Tool costs in the Central Plateau
    Tool (Eng) Zouti (Kreyol) Cost (H$)
    Pick Pikwa 50
    Sickle Digo 100
    Machete machete 30
    Shovel pèl 50
    Hoe wou 60
    TOTAL 280
    Overall, 85% of farmers surveyed borrow the tools they
    need from other farmers. In Boucan Carré 90% of
    farmers borrow tools, 81% in La Hoye, and 54% in Des
    Bayes. In Petit-Montaille, all farmers responded that
    they borrow tools.

    September 2004
    Nathan C. McClintock

  20. Hi Bob,
    I concur that tools are a significant cost, especially to the poorer farmers. Where I implemented a charcoal project (in Mali), it was also common practice for farmers to share their tools. However, with the right investments these can be paid off. I would again want to emphasize “right investment”, beacuse not every investment will lead to improvement. Often it is little investment that can make a huge difference, but the farmers or charcoal producers sometimes have barely enough to feed their family, let alone making investments. In these situations systems like microcredits, paying in terms, buying on credit, or sharing with a community can all be advantageous. This goes for agricultural tools as well as for retorts. It is simply the question whether the investment pais off and whether the financial tools are available.

    • Anne,
      I too am searching for ways to improve the income (and sustainability) of small farmers. See bottom.
      I’m just not sure that improving charcoal production is the best way to do that. I expect a charcoal retort is beyond most micro-finance limits. Also, the only way to pay off a retort loan is to make more charcoal. Which leads to more cutting of trees. Not a healthy dynamic for Haiti. We need to find a way out of vicious circles.

  21. Hi Bob,
    I did read, but did not place your appendices of your last post, as they were too long. Sorry for that. Your points are clear. However, I have three notes. (1) You say that you’re not sure that improving charcoal production is the best way to improve income & sustainability of small farmers. I agree, it is not. Small farmers are not the focus group, charcoal producers are. So improving charcoal production methods is to improve the sustainability of the charcoal process and income of charcoal producers. You just offer them a different tool to do what they already do. (2) A charcoal retort can be as ‘cheap’ as 1000 euro, maybe less (depending on country & retort model). This falls within most micro-financing limits. (3) You say that the only way to pay off a retort loan is to make more charcoal. This is exactly what should be taken into account by the people offering the retorts. The retorts should lead toincreased efficiency in prodcution, but not in increased production levels. There should be offered another way to pay off the retort. For example, a big retort could be used by a community, where each pays a little amount for each batch they burn (a bit like a laundromat, but then with charcoal combustion). Or, as I did in Mali, alternative livelihoods should be offered so that people can use the extra time they gain with the retort for other perquisites. That is where agriculture can come in. In Mali, the retort was coupled with an agroforestry system: The time gained by implementing a retort was put in the agroforestry. Trees were planted to ensure a renewable source of wood for charcoal production. In between the tree rows crops were plant for extra revenues and to pay off the retort. I know a different approach is needed for Haiti, as this agroforestry system does not work well on steep slopes.

  22. ‘We know that this is destroying the land, but charcoal is what keeps us alive’

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  24. This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me.
    Many thanks!

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