Africa Conservation Fund, together with ICCN (Congolese Wildlife Authority) are running the alternative energy program in the outskirts of Virunga National park. In order to stop deforestation (which is happening at an unprecedented rate) 600 pressing machines have been installed in villages surrounding the park.

So far, the production of fuel briquettes has been very successful, but sales in Goma (capital of North Kivu) could not catch up with the press beneficiaries motivation. Unfortunately, people still prefer charcoal to fuel briquettes (which are made 100% of agricultural residue and recyclable material). Remember that to make one kilo of charcoal, six kilos of wood are needed. The calorific value of fuel briquettes is half of that of charcoal. Nevertheless, it is very similar to that of wood, therefore making the cooking job a success.

Burning fuel briquettes in an improved school – program currently running in the school EP Kiwanja

Testing fuel briquettes in a bakery’s oven – wood consumers easily swap towards fuel briquettes

Our efforts are now streamed towards improving the quality of the fuel briquettes, getting as much of its humidity level out (a humid briquettes equals unhealthy smoke) and a marketing and education campaign on the consequences of deforestation.

New packaging for fuel briquettes – now sold in a 6 kilo paper bag around Goma’s most popular markets

With a monthly production of 4.000 fuel briquette sacks, sales only reached the 1.300 mark last month. We are expecting to close some deals very soon: the prison in Goma, where wood is currently used in the kitchen to feed 900 men, Worldvision, who has approved a budget to provide fuel briquettes to those schools in Vitchumbi where they get free food from WFP (World Food Program), and Heal Africa, a hospital in Goma that cooks for 300 people every day. More news to come soon! Please remember to catch up on for further information.

Posted by: soulens | August 6, 2009

On The Independent newspaper, today

Rangers v rebels: fight to save rare gorillas


A bloody battle is raging in Eastern Congo over the illegal charcoal trade that is killing the region’s great apes

By Daniel Howden

For the past week a remarkable battle has been raging in the mountain forests of Eastern Congo. Park rangers entrusted with protecting some of the world’s most endangered gorillas have launched an offensive against the rebel armies in the area and the charcoal industry that helps to support them.

Specially trained wildlife officers, backed by UN troops, have attacked and destroyed hundreds of illegal charcoal kilns deep in the forests of Virunga National Park, in a bid to disrupt the environmentally devastating industry.

The $30m (£17.7m) trade helps fund the myriad armed groups who destabilise this region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and its perpetrators are unlikely to accept the counterattack. Speaking from his mountain base in Rumangabo, the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, said his men were “braced for a violent reaction” to their strike.

Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, lies across the mountain chain that straddles the border between DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. It is home to the most important remaining population of mountain gorillas.

But the 7,800 sq km reserve is also surrounded by as many as one million people, who have been displaced by the nearly continual civil war that has ravaged North Kivu in the last two decades. The tremendous local demand for cheap fuel for heating and cooking has been exploited by armed groups, and in many cases rogue elements from the Congolese national army, who have profited from a protection racket that has shielded illegal loggers and charcoal kilns from the law.

The lucrative trade has pitted armed rebels against the 200 gorillas and their protectors in a battle for the forest, with often murderous consequences. In June and July of 2007, seven gorillas were slaughtered and the shocking pictures of a dead 500-pound silverback, named Senkwekwe, being carried on poles by grieving villagers sparked a global outcry.

The killings were traced back to the corrupt circle protecting the charcoal trade, which produces 120,000 sacks of charred forest wood every month. Investigators found that rangers and their associates in the armed militias murdered the animals as a warning to their protectors not to interfere.

In addition to the great ape killings, more than 150 rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years in the five parks of Eastern DRC. The park authorities had been expelled from much of their own reserve for 18 months by one rebel army, the CNDP, until November last year.

Mr de Merode, a former anthropologist, said that it shouldn’t be up to park authorities to fight armed militia but the destructive threat of the charcoal trade had left them with little choice. “It’s not our job to fight the rebels, that’s the army’s job,” he said. “Our job is to protect the park, but they are in the park and they are destroying it.”

The Congolese national army is among the most dysfunctional institution in an already notoriously corrupt country. Last year its weakness was exposed by the rogue general Laurent Nkunda who routed a much larger national army force and briefly threatened to overrun Goma, the most important city in the region. Nkunda’s CNDP forces held back and were eventually driven away, but only after assistance from the army in neighbouring Rwanda. Eastern Congo is overrun by dozens of armed groups which the army and Monuc, the UN mission, has failed to neutralise. The rebel groups include the FDLR, made up of remnants of the Rwandan Hutu soldiers who carried out the genocide across the border before fleeing into Congo’s vast forests.

The FDLR has been one of the main factions profiting from the charcoal trade and is also blamed for many of the recent atrocities in Eastern Congo. “The illegal exploitation of resources is one of the main factors behind 15 years of civil war and the five million deaths that it has caused,” said Mr de Merode.

He said that his rangers’ efforts to disrupt the charcoal trade could only play a small part in addressing these problems but that the issue “goes to the heart of instability” in Eastern Congo. However, the Belgian conservationist admitted that to take out a few hundred kilns was only a “drop in the ocean” and further action would be needed.

The offensive comes as efforts to provide alternatives to the seriously impoverished communities that surround the park and live on the fringe of the city of Goma have been accelerated. An EU-backed scheme to set up small-scale village factories producing sustainable briquettes has so far employed 1,800 people in the area.

The programme, run by the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN), has been training locals to use the kit to produce briquettes out of grass, leaves or dung. Officials plan to pull in 1,200 new producers each month, with the aim of getting 18,000 people employed in a new alternative fuel industry by 2011.

Fuelling the conflict: The charcoal trade

Few things illustrate the poverty in which millions of Africans continue to live as clearly as the fact that they cannot afford basic fossil fuels such as kerosene or natural gas for heating and cooking. In the absence of affordable alternatives many countries are locked into a cycle of expanding illegal charcoal use, increased deforestation and collapsing natural resources. The industry, both legal and illegal, is estimated to be worth more than $2bn (£1.2bn) per year across the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In energy terms charcoal use outstrips electricity, which remains unaffordable to many.*SUDAN Conflict and drought in the arid region of Darfur has seen more and more displaced people chasing fewer natural resources. The competition for scarce trees and the huge unregulated demand for charcoal has contributed seriously to the tensions that underpin clashes in Eastern Sudan.


The threat of desertification prompted the government to try a charcoal ban earlier this year, which prompted angry protests. The action was taken after 60 per cent of the country’s trees were lost to the kilns.


One of the neglected causes of the ongoing anarchy is the rampant deforestation in the acacia groves in the south. A highly organised illegal charcoal operation has destroyed the ecosystem in order to feed lucrative fuel exports to the Gulf States.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Profits from the charcoal trade have fuelled instability and funded rebel armies in North and South Kivu. With more than one million people displaced by the fighting authorities cannot afford to stop the trade until a viable alternative fuel can be found.


Posted by: soulens | July 23, 2009

A Little Break for a Little Someone

Dear All,

I am away from the DRC now on a three month maternity leave. I will be back in Goma by the end of October, to continue working with Africa Conservation Fund and their ‘Village Briquette Factories: Energy and Employment for Eastern Congo’  program.


This picture was taken in Bukima last week, before leaving the DRC. Behind me, Mikeno, where the last 200 (out of 700) mountain gorillas live.

Kibati 2

With my friend Elisha, responsible for the Environmental Program in Mercy Corps, in Kibati 2. Elisha is a great supporter of the Fuel Briquette Program, and together with ACF, we are distributing fuel briquettes to those vulnerable in 5 different IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps in Goma.

Please don’t forget to visit ACF’s website to get a weekly update on the program! Things are progressing fast …. don’t miss it.

Posted by: soulens | May 17, 2009

Fuel Briquette Program takes the lead in Goma

Dear All, I just wanted to tell you the good news about Africa Conservation Fund and their Fuel Briquette Program in Virunga National Park. I am currently coordinating such iniciative, and there are 130 pressing machines on the ground so far. 

Sack briquettes

This is how fuel briquette sacks are sold in the local market: same volume as the charcoal ones, and as heavy as 45 to 50 kilos

Fuel briquettes are currently being sold in the local markets in Goma, and last month 300 sacks have also been purchased by WWF to provide refugees with an alternative energy source in the IDP camps (distribution in charge of Mercy Corps).


ACF’s truck downloading fuel briquette sacks in the refugee camp Mugunga 1

WWF container 1

Downloading a full truck of fuel briquette’s sacks

So far it is all good news, production is steadily going up, and the feedback is really positive.Of course there are many difficulties we do encounter on the ground, but with patience and a lot of effort, we are overcoming the problems. Please do check on for further updated on this fantastic project!

Posted by: soulens | April 2, 2009

5 New Press Machines Donated

Today we have received the donation for 5 fuel briquette pressing machines, to be installed next week in different regions of South Kivu.

Proyecto Gran Simio is the donor, a Spanish NGO that works around the world in more than 20 countries, protecting big apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans). 

With the installation of 5 new press machines, we will be helping to stop deforestation. Most of the charcoal that is being locally used in South Kivu comes from the UNESCO world heritage Kahuzi Biega National Park. This illegal charcoal is the only means local population can cook with, for only 6% of the population has access to electricity. By stopping deforestation, we are protecting the habitat of lowland gorillas and many other species of the park. And we are also providing work for 30 people plus.


Picture with all the participants at the General Hospital’s premises

Six groups assisted to our 2 day training course last weekend, which was held at the General Hospital in Bukavu. They came from various villages in far territories, such as Uvira and Walungu. 


For two days, everyone had a chance to give it a try with the pressing machine


Gertrude, a team worker for the pressing machine at the hospital, talks about the different materials they use for their fuel briquettes.


To close the training session, we prepared local dishes with the fuel briuettes (fou fou, bailed bananas, rice and fried fish)

Posted by: soulens | March 11, 2009

New Stove Design in Bukavu

Last weekend I was visiting Sister Elena Albarracin and her Malnutrition Center in the General Hospital in Bukavu. They are fearlessly pressing fuel briquettes on a daily basis, to be consumed in the hospital (preparing the food for the malnourished children), used by the pressing machine workers at home and sold to the public.

Gertrude and Sister Elena proudly showing their dry fuel briquette stock


They have invented a new model of stove to burn the fuel briquettes. Two versions have been made: a regular size for small pans, and a bigger one that takes the big local pans (for the popular crowed families in the DR Congo!)



The regular stove on the front, bigger version at the back

On Sunday the 8th of March we celebrated Women’s International Day with the workers responsible for the fuel briquette press machine, all girls who are single adolescent mothers and now being employed by Sister Elena on this project.


Posted by: soulens | February 23, 2009

February News from Goma

I would like to update you on the fuel briquette’s work in Bukavu. All 10 machines installed in this city back in 2008 are currently active and pressing.

Myself, I am now based in Goma working with Africa Conservation Fund and their fuel briquettes program in Virunga National Park. Working side by side with the director of the park Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, and the ICCN (Congolese Wildlife Authority) this project aims to install 5 press machines a day.



Nevertheless, I am still actively involved with helping further local organizations in South Kivu. Five new machines have been donated to this voluntary project, and I will be shortly traveling to Bukavu to identify the lucky winners!

Posted by: soulens | January 25, 2009

New Year’s Plans 2009

As for the next 6 months, I will be working with Africa Conservation Fund with their Alternative Fuel’s Program. Based in Goma, I will be responsible for inserting the fuel briquettes in the local market. As I write this post, 120 press machines are being built, and training will be starting very soon, engaging 720 local people.

In ACF’s office in Goma working with Balemba, Ephrem and Robert Williams
One of the many IDP camps in Goma – my idea is to provide refugees with fuel briquettes 


On the other hand, Project Kadutu is keeping up its hard work! I will be updating this blog with the latest progress on the machines already installed in the General Hospital, IFRADE and Tshivanga.

The good news is that 5 new press machines have been donated to this project, so shortly I will be identifying possible local groups/organizations where this machines can benefit from! I will be telling you more about the donor in the following weeks.

Posted by: soulens | January 25, 2009

La Nacion’s Article

During my last trip to Buenos Aires in December 2008, I have been interviewed by the journalist Susana Reinoso, who has written an article on my work and the fuel briquette’s project in DR Congo. It was published in the Sunday’s paper 11/01/09 

Susana Pataro, Virginia Echavarria, Susana Reinoso


I would like to thank everyone who has kindly left encouraging messages on this blog and via e-mail. I have saved every single one, for they keep me going during the difficult times when things don’t go as planned. Thank you!


Virginia Echavarria: una alternativa al trafico de carbon y la deforestacion

Desde hace dos años esta joven argentina trabaja en la República Democrática del Congo, donde impulsa la fabricación y el uso de briquetas combustibles de material orgánico, una opción económica y sustentable que, además, resguarda a la población más pobre del cruento comercio ilegal de carbón

una alternativa al tráfico de carbón y la deforestación Foto: Rodrigo Néspolo


Hace dos años, difícilmente podía imaginar la argentina Virginia Echavarría que su lugar en el mundo estaría en la República Democrática del Congo (R.D. Congo), un país que apenas ubicaba en el corazón de África. Uno de los más ricos del continente negro, hoy sumergido en el terror.

Mientras trabajaba para la ONG Wild Life Direct, en la que realizó un trabajo logístico como voluntaria, conoció las bondades de una máquina prensadora cuyo costo no supera los US$ 170 dólares y que sirve para elaborar briquetas combustibles. Las briquetas son un compactado de hojas secas de árboles, aserrín, papel y desechos orgánicos, con el que se sustituye el carbón, mineral cuyo tráfico hacia los vecinos países de Ruanda y Uganda se cobra vidas hora tras hora.

El carbón está provocando la deforestación de los parques nacionales del Congo. Sólo el Parque Virunga, con sus 800.000 hectáreas, es uno de los pulmones verdes del planeta, junto con el Amazonas. En la región de Goma, la ciudad congoleña más próxima a Ginseyi, en Ruanda -que ha recibido en los últimos 14 años la diáspora de ese país-, el tráfico de carbón mueve un comercio ilegal de unos US$ 30 millones.

Audaz, decidida, esta argentina graduada en Comercio Exterior y Desarrollo en Londres, se mudó a Bukavu, capital de Sud Kivu, y se lanzó a la construcción de las máquinas de briquetas combustibles.

Esta semana, Echavarría regresó al Congo, ya incorporada al African Conservation Fund, para continuar con la labor emprendida: construirá 120 máquinas de briquetas y trabajará con el belga Emmanuel de Merode, reconocido conservacionista y actual director del Parque Nacional Virunga, donde se preserva una especie en grave peligro de extinción: el gorila de montaña. La deforestación en este parque está provocando su desaparición sin pausa. Sólo quedan 720 ejemplares de esa especie herbívora en la triple frontera de la R.D. Congo, Ruanda y Uganda. En 2007 fueron fusilados siete gorilas, a manos de rebeldes tutsis huidos de Ruanda y que se aposentaron en el Parque Virunga.

Con las máquinas de briquetas combustibles, Echavarría además brinda trabajo a quienes las construyen. Y ofrece una mano a mujeres víctimas de violaciones, alojadas en centros de acogida en los que procuran sobrevivir. La violación es, en la R.D. Congo, una herramienta de sojuzgamiento y humillación.

“Cada máquina da trabajo a seis u ocho personas. La briqueta se cuela utilizando papel, pero también descomponiendo materia verde -hojas, material agrícola- con lo cual se obtiene una mezcla que es como una sopa. Eso se pone en un cilindro que prensa la materia, dándole la consistencia de una roca. Se deja secar tres días y se quita el cilindro y ya está listo el combustible”, explica la joven.

La máquina construida por la emprendedora argentina posibilita además un menor gasto en el carbón que se utiliza para cocinar. “Es una tecnología sustentable y accesible para un pueblo pobrísimo”, subraya Virginia, a quien LA NACION entrevistó poco antes de su partida. Un sueldo promedio para un congolés es de un dólar por día. Tres briquetas de combustible, el mínimo para cocinar un plato para una familia, se compra por 50 francos congoleses. Un dólar equivale a 600 francos congoleses y una bolsa de carbón cuesta 30 dólares.

La R.D. Congo atraviesa una situación desesperada. Hambre, miseria, una violencia sin fin, el horror de la guerra que deja, sobre todo, asesinatos, niños mutilados y mujeres violadas con reiteración, embarazadas de sus raptores y contagiadas de sida. En sus parques se produce también el mineral que tiñe de sangre la vida de los congoleños: el coltán, imprescindible en la telefonía celular y de computadoras, que está provocando un grave problema ecológico y social.

Virginia conoce bien la situación: “El tráfico del coltán es diez mil veces más redituable que el de los diamantes. Sólo el uno por ciento de ese mineral se comercializa legalmente en el mercado. Por eso nadie quiere la paz en el Congo”, dice la conservacionista argentina, perteneciente a una familia de diplomáticos y en pareja con un congolés que trabaja para otra ONG africana.

De la nada al milagroLa primera máquina que construyó con sus manos -sin conocer en absoluto la técnica, pero ayudada por los manuales que consiguió por Internet (la máquina ya había sido probada por la ONG Legacy Foundation)- fue donada a Ifrade, una institución a cargo de Solange Ngobobo, que cobija a 40 mujeres violadas por militares o rebeldes ruandeses, que además son portadoras de sida.

Pero hubo un imprevisto: la lengua. En el Congo, la mayor parte de la población es analfabeta, especialmente las mujeres, que tienen menor acceso a la educación que los hombres. No hablan ni francés ni inglés. Hace seis meses, cuando Echavarría puso a andar la primera máquina de briquetas, ella tampoco hablaba swahili, la lengua nativa. Pese a la aceptación de las mujeres y el entusiasmo de la argentina, la iniciativa no pudo avanzar.

Antes de que la ganara el desaliento, Virginia conoció a la monja Elena Albarracín, también argentina, de la Congregación Dorotee di Cemmo, que dirige un Centro Nutricional en el Hospital General de Bukavu, adonde llegan las madres con sus hijos desnutridos. La religiosa argentina se arremangó y echó a andar el proyecto.

Para mejorar el rendimiento de su creación, la joven emprendedora inventó “una especie de horno con un tacho de metal y un martillo. Con una cámara más cerrada para contener el aire, la máquina mejoró sustancialmente. Con ella, la hermana Albarracín cocina los platos típicos congoleños -boga, fufú, bugali y lenga lenga- para sacar a los niños de la desnutrición”. Fue la segunda en funcionamiento. “Es un desafío impresionante para mí. Siempre estoy buscando nuevas iniciativas. A mi novio le llevo una máquina semiindustrial de pastas caseras, para comenzar otro emprendimiento”, dice entusiasmada, y su ancha sonrisa ilumina su mirada celeste.

Enterados de la iniciativa de Virginia, merced a su blog ( ), GTZ -la ONG de Cooperación Técnica Alemana- le encargó la construcción de otras seis máquinas de briquetas. GTZ trabaja con el ICCN (Instituto Congoleño para la Conservación de la Naturaleza) en el corazón del Parque Kahuzi Biega, declarado por la Unesco patrimonio mundial.

El belga de Merode la llamó para que lleve el invento a Rumangabo, la estación central del Parque Virunga. Pero desde hace cuatro meses también la convoca el sector privado. Como una imprenta que quiere abaratar costos. “Esta es una tarea de concientización lenta. La población local tiene mucho interés. Hay que convencerlos de que dejen el carbón y usen las briquetas”, dice Virginia.

Cada vez que capacita a estudiantes que trabajan en desarrollo comunitario, a mujeres y hombres que buscan un trabajo, la emprendedora argentina tiene un auditorio nutrido. “Se autoconvocan. A veces, por chismosos. Muchos tienen muy poco para hacer”, dice.

Empapada de la problemática que asfixia a la R.D. Congo, Virginia afirma que en la guerra se mezclan muchos intereses económicos: “El Congo tiene riquísimos recursos naturales, y el 80% del coltán está en su territorio. En el caso del carbón, pasa a Ruanda en forma ilegal, porque allí está prohibida su producción”.

Como suele ocurrir con el efecto dominó de los conflictos en Africa, el genocidio de Ruanda cayó sobre las espaldas de la R.D. Congo. En la frontera, donde la ciudad congoleña de Goma está separada por una calle de Ginsenyi, en Ruanda, hay más de 250.000 desplazados y un incesante comercio ilegal. Como dice Virginia, “a nadie le conviene la paz, porque los intereses son multimillonarios”.

Susana Reinoso 


Nombre y apellido: 
Virginia Echavarría

36 años

De Londres al Congo: 
Argentina, hizo un posgrado en el Natural Resources Institutey hace dos años se fue a trabajar en el área logística del Parque Nacional Virunga, en la República Democrática del Congo.

Tráfico y deforestación: 
Ahora trabaja para el African Conservation Fund, en Goma, y será mano derecha del belga Emmanuel de Merode en el Parque Virunga, donde el tráfico de carbón y la deforestación hacen estragos.


Posted by: soulens | December 10, 2008

Rok Oblak’s Stove

Following our friend’s advice from Canada, we have decided to give it a try to this new stove. Rok is currently writing his thesis on this subject. In the General Hospital in Bukavu, the team decided to build one of these stoves as a sample.

Our first burning attempt was promising, although we need a much longer fuel briquette (at least 3 times longer than its normal size) to make it burn properly. Because our briquette is used in a different stove (our own metal bucket version), it kept falling down. We are now pressing some jumbo briquettes to specifically test it with this model of stove. The only problem is it will take many days to get the fuel briquette completely dry.






As Rok explained to me on his e-mail:

“I’ve just started with briquettes here in Vancouver, paper & sawdust, so i can do some simple testing. I’ll be heading down to Aprovecho and Richard to do more extensive testing, soon I hope.

The key benefit with this process of vertical position of the briquette is the draft generated that provides a great burning. Cos the briquette is in vertical position, the draft changes from vertical to horizontal, so the stove does not need to be so high. And yes, you feed the new briquette just with pushing the previous one inside, so they get burned just from the inside.

To explain it from a different view, the most efficient stoves are the ones with fast draft, but as little air coming in as possible. Its contradictory to some extent but manageable with this ‘knee’ type of the rocket stove. Philips stove works like magic using this principle with additional electric fan, but its more than $100 to produce..

I’d like the principle to be applied to metal or clay stoves, but clay would be easier as you can make the dimensions as desired. Are there any local brick-makers where you’ve been? Clay insulators are so much more efficient and you need to burn them to get the lightness and durability.”

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