How to Convert Dead Fruit Trees Into Fuel Without Ruining the Planet

How a Tunisian family managed to turn a blight into briquettes and make money while about it

Tunisia: Coal, a.k.a. "biochar", is made from discarded wood of fruit trees.
Chanouf Farm Biofire

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In light of increasingly scarce energy resources and a general shift toward eco-friendly energies, one farm in Tunisia saw an opportunity to diversify its activities. It has developed a form of bio-fuel as an alternative to firewood, which many consider to be a major contributor to deforestation and forest degradation.

Tree and forest waste are environmental hazards that can pollute oceans and cause forest and garden fires, especially during the summer months. Yet the Chanouf family managed to turn this waste into an extra source of revenue in a challenging agricultural sector. 

Located in Manouba, a suburb city in Tunis, the Chanouf Farm developed an agroforestry wasterecycling unit to produce organic charcoal and biomass energy out of pear and olive tree waste. The farm, which had been producing pears and olives since 1995, became the Chanouf Farm-Biofire company in 2015.

It started focusing on using bio-waste to make flammable coal briquettes, wood charcoal and tar as highly efficient and ecological alternatives to firewood.

There are three main stages of production: first, wood waste is collected from firewood, leaves and bark. Then it is grinded, dried and pressed, which results into two main products: charcoal briquettes and ready-to-use coal. Finally, charcoal residue is again subjected to pressure and turned into pressed coal. New residue is charred (carbonized) once more and turned into tar.

The idea came to the startup’s founder, Murad Chanouf, while he was on a trip in China and discovered a type of coal he didn’t recognize. Upon his return to Tunisia, he and his son-in-law, Radwan Al-Ayadi (now director of the company) decided to create a new product: bio-charcoal (also called biochar) made entirely with biomass from discarded organic products and wood waste. This new source of energy would be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than conventional sources.

"Our product is less expensive than ordinary coal, gas or other sources of energy. It is 30 percent less humid than ordinary coal and less expensive than gas," said Al-Ayadi, adding that wood charcoal is widely used in African countries, especially for cooking, and that the process to obtain the bio-charcoal is carbon neutral.

The Chanouf family made deals with a number of waste collectors who provide the farm with agroforestry waste in exchange for a salary, thus creating jobs, collecting waste and developing their startup all at once.

Once work and production started to flow, their initial idea to produce bio-charcoal evolved. The Chanouf Farm hired researchers, who discovered that charcoal waste can be transformed into vegetable tar – a substance capable of effectively eliminating diseases affecting fruit trees.

Some charcoal residue still remained after production. Chanouf decided to cook it, turning it into bio-charcoal specially used to light hookahs. He also set up a laboratory on the farm to conduct further research on their products, which led them to discover that the coal designed for hookahs can also be turned into compost when added to tree soil, with astonishing results – Chanouf claims that the fruit production capacity of one tree using the fertilizer multiplied more than 700 times, noting that the fertilizer is still being tested.

The company now has 12 employees and works regularly with a large number of waste collectors. Its 550 sq. meter production plant has three sectors: one where tree waste is recovered, one where pressurizing takes place and a third one for coalification. The plant is located on the 1,500 sq. meter property belonging to the Chanouf Farm.

Thanks to its innovation and marketing success, the startup has grown. Its sales rose from 80,000 Tunisian dinars in 2015 (USD 32,000), to 120,000 dinars last year.

"We hope to expand, establishing a new warehouse and acquiring two new pressure machines. This will enable us to double production and start exporting, especially now that we’re receiving orders from Europe and a number of African countries. For now we’re focusing on the local market; we’ll expand once we are able to provide our product throughout the year," Al-Ayadi said.

The experiments led by the company’s lab are not limited to charcoal, as they are now looking into other uses for vegetable tar. Aside from being a natural fertilizer, tar can be used as a natural pesticide, and the Chanouf family believes it could also serve to develop medicines.