Research and action, innovation, multi-actor partnerships, reconciliation of climatic and local development objectives: these four ideas sum up the Typha project, which was presented with the Convergences International Award on 9 September 2015. This award honours the best projects with strong social or environmental impacts led by solidarity organisations in partnership with public and/or private players, featuring a high degree of innovation. We take a closer look at this project led since 2011 by GRET and two Mauritanian organisations: the Higher Institute of Technological Studies (Iset) in Rosso and the Diawling National Park.
Turning an environmental constraint into green energy
The proliferation in the Senegal River of the Typha australis plant, commonly known as bulrush, started when the anti-salt Diama dam was built in 1986. This dam, which was built approximately thirty kilometres from the mouth of the river, was designed to prevent the salt water of the Atlantic ocean entering the river with every tide. The construction of the dam favoured the development of agriculture along the banks of the river, but for typha, it also created the ideal conditions in which to proliferate. Today, typha occupies a 130-kilometre stretch of the river, blocking irrigation channels, reducing access to the river for livestock farmers and fishermen and colonising a fragile ecosystem that is a major breeding ground for numerous species of migratory birds from Europe and Asia. 25,000 hectares have been invaded on the Mauritanian side and approximately the same surface on the Senegal side, with a huge impact on local populations who live mainly off agriculture, fishing and livestock farming.
The Typha project was ignited by an idea: as the fight against proliferation was ineffective, why not try to make this plant useful? The Higher Institute of Technological Studies (Iset) in Rosso developed a technical innovation in its laboratory that makes it possible to produce cooking fuel using typha. In the Sahelian context, where 90 % of Mauritanian households cook with charcoal and thereby place increasing pressure on forests, developing an alternative fuel using typha meets the dual challenge of fighting deforestation and enhancing an invasive species. In 2011, Iset in Rosso, GRET and the Diawling National Park (DNP), which is in charge of conservation of the ecosystem at the mouth of the river on the Mauritanian side, launched the Typha project with the aim of testing the innovation produced by the Iset in the laboratory in Rosso.
The project made it possible to stabilise the typha coal “product” while at the same time developing a fuel suited to the needs of consumers and capable of competing with charcoal, as well as an effective production process to transformer the plant into fuel. After four years of work, the project results meet a triple challenge that is environmental, technical and economic:
- In environmental terms, consuming typha coal instead of charcoal relieves both the aquatic environment and the pressure placed on forests. For every ton of typha coal produced, seven tons of wood are saved from logging. The impact in terms of greenhouse gas is also very significant, as typha is a plant that grows very quickly. The CO² emitted by burning typha coal is captured by the plant which grows back in a few months, whereas a tree can take up to ten years to store as much CO2 as it emits when burned.
- In technical terms, the project enables local populations to be actors in their own development. The project locally developed solutions for carbonisation and production of coal suited to the socio-technical context in Mauritania. Two types of production have emerged: a traditional village approach and an industrial approach. In the village approach, facilities are provided for womens’ cooperatives in the village or in micro-entreprises to produce typha coal traditionally. They produce for self-supply in the village for the local market.
- In economic terms, transforming Typha australis into charcoal creates new rural economic activities and strengthens the autonomy of women in the villages: almost 500 women are involved in the production process in the eight villages concerned. The pilot industrial unit installed in Iset in Rosso mobilises five employees for an average production of 5 tons per month. In the long term, several dozen jobs will be created by increasing the number of coal production lines.
Major concepts discussed internationally and tested in the field
The Typha project provides proof of the effectiveness of official development assistance via grants to support research of innovative solutions for the fight against poverty and inequalities. It demonstrates the pertinence in the field of implementing major concepts that were on the agenda during the 2015 international meetings: coalition of different types of public and private actors, reconciliation of climate and development objectives and innovation on the scale of the region with locally produced green energy.
- A coalition of actors: the partnership between the three structures was one of the main factors of succes for the project. Iset mobilised its best engineers to pilot the technical wing of the project, in particular for its scientific research aspect. The DNP led activities for the villages located close to the Park and provided biology and mapping skills that made it possible to better understand the scale of the typha’s invasiveness and the impact of the plant on the environment. GRET piloted the organisational and socio-economic aspect. Present in Mauritania since 1991, its expertise is recognised in the energy sector based on other projects involving rural electrification, especially via multi-purpose solar platforms. These three actors combined their skills to develop an innovation that would not have been possible without this partnership. By mobilising know-how appropriate to the local Mauritanian context and specific public financial resources, Iset, the DNP and GRET developed a high quality coal capable of competing with charcoal.
- A local development project that takes the issue of climate into consideration: the transformation of typha into coal meets various challenges relating to climate change, especially in terms of mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation is the cause of 10 % of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Typha coal provides an alternative to deforestation, its production and consumption are carbon neutral and the CO² emitted by its carbonisation is re-captured by the typha plant itself which grows back extremely quickly, as opposed to charcoal, which emits gases that are not re-assimilated by the environment. This project demonstrates that economic development and the fight against climate change are not contradictory objectives. Developing countries do not have to choose one or the other.
- Official development assistance and NGOs are also driving innovation!
The prize awarded by Convergences also encourages taking the necessary risks to create innovations. The Typha project is above all a research and action project that was built around an iterative approach to develop prototypes, tests, diagnoses and steps backwards. This approach, which is the result of a partnership between three organisations with complementary skills, was only made possible through the funding provided by ODA. The European Union and the Mauritanian state, via its Agency for the promotion of universal access to services (Apaus), backed the project financially for four years, giving the teams the means to develop this innovation. These public grants from the North and the South are necessary to bring about innovations with economic models that can subsequently be stabilised in order to guarantee sustainability.
The end of a pilot phase, the beginning of an adventure
The initial results of the four-year pilot phase are visible. The traditional production units rose to the technological and organisational challenge. Women’s cooperatives and small private operators are now autonomous and are selling or self-supplying typha coal locally. Areas freed of typha are starting to increase and a real resource management strategy has been put in place. The industrial production unit is now up and running. Monthly production of coal is stable and can now be sold in the city of Rosso.
The challenge now is to transfer the technology to Mauritanian entrepreneurs in order to launch production and marketing on a larger scale. Together with Iset and the DNP, GRET is working on the construction of a second phase that would make it possible to develop several production lines by local entrepreneurs in order to sell the typha coal in the markets in Rosso and Nouakchott, the capital. With an annual consumption of at least 50,000 tons of coal in Mauritania, production of typha coal could create a new manufacturing sector. On condition that the lessors, public authorities and civil society remain mobilised!