Kate's Blog

Charcoal

Charcoal is used in almost every household in Ethiopia. It burns slowly and generates intense heat, so is an important cooking fuel here.

The definition of charcoal is a black residue consisting of carbon that is obtained by removing water from wood through heating the wood with hay or straw in the absence of oxygen. This is done by piling the wood and (in the case of the charcoal shown below) hay in a conical shape and covering it with soil so that no air can enter. The wood pile is then set alight and left to burn for five days. The resulting charcoal is soft, brittle, lightweight and porous, and it resembles coal.

Charcoal production is a major cause of deforestation. However, in the case of the charcoal produced in Dib Bahir recently, the wood used comprised the small branches of felled eucalyptus trees. After the eucalyptus timber had been removed by lorry for use in construction, the branches were left behind and the charcoal burners set to work.

A sack of charcoal sells locally for 100 birr (£3, 4 euros, 5 US$ ) and in Gonder city (70 miles or 120 km away) for 20% more - 120 birr. The charcoal is placed in a metal or earthenware burner (stove) and the cooking pot rests on top. Sometimes food is placed directly on the glowing charcoal and roasted. Women sit on the roadside and sell freshly roasted maize cobs to passers-by - see the photograph below.

Incidentally, although I don’t have copies of Arthur Ransome’s children’s series, Swallow and Amazons, with me here in Ethiopia, apparently the books (particularly the second one, Swallowdale) feature carefully drawn vignettes of the lives and the techniques of charcoal burners at the start of the 20th century in England’s Lake District.

the covered woodpile burning
the covered woodpile burning


charcoal put into sacks for sale
charcoal put into sacks for sale


charcoal
charcoal


sack of charcoal ready to be transported
sack of charcoal ready to be transported


Gonder woman roasting maize on a charcoal burner
Gonder woman roasting maize on a charcoal burner