In Sierra Leone, fighting deforestation using coconuts

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Their house was gone. They weren’t at the hospital or the morgue. Even as he searched the news for their faces, the teenager knew: His adopted family — the people who’d given him a bed when he was sleeping under a bridge — didn’t survive the mudslide.

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Three days of downpours, heavy for Sierra Leone’s rainy season, had given way to reddish brown muck streaming down the residential slopes of Sugarloaf mountain. Sinkholes opened. People in this hilly capital reported hearing a crack — like thunder, or a bomb — before the earth collapsed.

Alhaji Siraj Bah, now 22, might have been there that August morning in 2017 if his boss had not put him on the night shift. He might have been sharing a bedroom with his best friend, Abdul, who he called “brother.”

Instead he was sweeping the floor of a drinking water plant when 1,141 people died or went missing, including Abdul’s family.

“All I felt was helpless,” he said, “so I put my attention into finding ways to help.”

Four years later, Bah runs his own business with nearly three dozen employees and an ambitious goal: Reduce the felling of Sierra Leone’s trees — a loss that scientists say amplifies the mudslide risk — by encouraging his neighbors to swap wood-based charcoal for a substitute made from coconut scraps. Heaps of shells and husks discarded by juice sellers around Freetown provide an energy source that requires no chopping.

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His enterprise, Rugsal Trading, has now produced roughly 100 tons of coconut briquettes, which, studies show, burn longer for families who do most of their cooking on small outdoor stoves. One report in the Philippines found that a ton of charcoal look-alikes fashioned from natural waste was equivalent to sparing up to 88 trees with 10-centimeter trunks.

“My motivation is: The bigger we grow, the more we can save our trees,” Bah said on a steamy afternoon in the capital, chatting between coconut waste collection stops. “The hardest part is getting the word out about this alternative. Everyone loves charcoal.”

The view of a hillside outside the Mortormeh community. On August 14, 2017, rocks, debris and mud flowed from above, destroying hundreds of homes and killing more than a 1,000 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Researchers weren’t sure what triggered the worst natural disaster in the West African country’s history, but some pointed to Sugarloaf mountain’s vanishing greenery. Deforestation not only releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — it weakens slopes. Canopies are critical for soaking up rain and taming floods. Roots anchor the soil together.

But Freetown’s mounts were going bald as people collected timber to clear lots for housing and make charcoal, the top cooking fuel in a nation where electricity is often unreliable. Sierra Leone has lost 30 percent of its forest cover over the last two decades, according to Global Forest Watch, an international tracker.

Bah had noticed men in his neighborhood harvesting wood practically every day. Many burned it to produce bags of charcoal. Most people he knew cooked with it.

What if he could change that?

Alhaji Bah, 22, the chief executive of Rugsal Trading, walks to his factory in Newton, Sierra Leone, on Oct. 6. Meanwhile, employees sort through coconut waste at the factory.

The idea

Growing up, Bah fixated on inventors. His idol was Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive and co-founder of Facebook. When he was ten, according to his mother, he pledged to create the next big thing. His father, a driver, died two years later, and the family ran out of money to take care of Bah and his sister.

So at 12, he sneaked away from home in his eastern village, hitching a ride to Freetown.

“I saw it as the promised land,” he said. “I thought if I could make it here, I could support my whole family.”

Bah lived on the streets for four years, washing cars for food. Then he met Abdul on a soccer field and the pair became close. He moved in with the boy’s family for nine months before the mudslide struck.

“After that, he was always on YouTube,” said Foday Conteh, 23, who met Bah when they were both living on the street. “He became obsessed with looking for ways to stop deforestation.”

Bah, 17 at this point, saw a video of a man in Indonesia who crafted charcoal replacements from coconut shells. Others were doing something similar in Ghana and Kenya: Collecting coconut scraps, drying them out in the sun, grinding them down, charring them in steel drums.

He watched the makers mix the blackened powder with binders like cassava flour and then feed the dough into a machine that spits out matte loaves. Next came slicing the loaves into cubes. You could grill with them the same way — except a coconut aroma fills the air.

“It looked like a great business idea,” Bah said. “I could make fuel with stuff we find on the street.”

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