After our charcoal trials, we decided to use the pot and three separate types of fuel to test the efficiency of our product. In other words, we wanted to prove that bamboo charcoal burned just as hot and just as long as wood charcoal. And while that process is outlined in our findings report and still being explored via tests in the lab, I wanted to talk a little about the process of lighting a jiko stove.
The first time we tried to use the stove, Kyson and I struggled to light the charcoal. We initially used dried leaves as a starter and wrapped it around the charcoal pieces. However, the leaves were too thin and quickly burnt out without affecting any of the charcoal inside the stove. We then graduated to kindling but the flames created were still not large enough to affect the charcoal. Lastly, we reluctantly graduated to pieces of paper from our notebooks but even that did not help us achieve the desired effect.
It was at this point that Roda, our host family’s cook and a local Malawian, came out to help us. She had been watching us struggle through the window and likely could not handle our bumbling attempts to achieve something her grandchildren could do in a heartbeat. After politely listening to us explain what we were trying to do, Rota brought a plastic bag, wrapped it around the charcoal, and then lit the plastic on fire. It burned slowly and gave the charcoal the heat it needed to eventually light up. The thought to use plastic to solve this problem would have never occurred to me. While I was impressed by her and other Malawians’ ingenuity, I was concerned with the daily health risks of lighting a plastic bag in and around their home.
Burning plastics can release carbon monoxide, dioxins and furans into the air and studies have linked dioxins and furans to cancer and a multitude of respiratory diseases. Even during the few trials we ran, the smell of burning plastic made my stomach churn and I could feel the toxins running through my body. Bamboo Lota’s hope is to get people not only off wood charcoal but off plastic as a source of kindling as well. It’s our hope that as our project progresses and more communities have greater economic stability, families can move towards cleaner forms of energy.