Charcoal from grass: Ghana’s next business opportunity?

Entrepreneurs in Ghana are reportedly exploring ways to establish more grass charcoal businesses, building on the success of pilot projects in two communities in the Savannah and Upper West regions.

The Millar Institute for Transdisciplinary and Development Studies (MITDS), in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has developed a new production method to convert savannah grass into charcoal. This new approach is designed to capitalise on the potential of the region’s grasses, with an eye towards reducing fire risks and curtailing forest degradation.

More than six million individuals in Ghana’s savannah ecological region rely on wood fuel and tree charcoal for their cooking needs. Current charcoal production methods, which are often unsustainable, have resulted in deforestation and environmental degradation. This issue is exacerbated by Ghana’s intense dry seasons, when the plentiful savannah grass becomes a primary catalyst for the area’s wildfires.

Unlike conventional charcoal, which is derived from tree-based biomass, these grass briquettes are made using harvested grass combined with a binding agent, forming compact charcoal bricks. This methodology is more efficient, making brick production simpler. The technology has created a market for green cooking fuel.

For every 100kg of grass charcoal utilised, two trees are conserved, translating to 76kg of annual carbon credits. As per MITDS’s analysis, the broad adoption of grass charcoal has the potential to counteract over 44,000 tonnes of carbon annually, representing a potential revenue stream of GHS 4.4 million (USD 394,000) from carbon offset credits.

MITDS has overseen the production and adoption of grass briquettes in partnership with five forest and farm producer groups.

To bolster the grass charcoal’s market presence, the project’s team is developing grass paper as a packaging solution for the briquettes. This addition aims to increase the sale price and enhance product recognition. The paper is also being considered as a potential roofing material for rural homes. It acts as insulation, helping to cool houses during the hot, dry season, and offers an alternative to forest resources typically used for plywood.

Currently, producing grass charcoal costs GHS 100 (USD 8.95) per 100 kg, roughly double the price of wood charcoal. This higher cost is attributed to the added ingredients needed, like binding agents. While grass for this purpose is bought from communities, cutting down a forest tree is often seen as ‘free’. To address this, the project’s leaders are collaborating with green energy specialists and policymakers to bolster the market for grass charcoal. They’re considering government incentives to drive its adoption, a strategy reminiscent of when gas stoves were successfully promoted as an alternative to wood charcoal stoves in Ghana.