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ROMA – When it’s party time, no doubt you enjoy grilling your own meat using your valued charcoal variety. But, guess what, gone are the days when you will have to rely on imported charcoal!

A type of charcoal produced by Rammitikoe Rammitikoe has passed a rigorous test by that National University of Lesotho (NUL) Chemical Technologist, Kabelo Makara and his Supervisor, Professor Hailemichael Alemu.
It is now doing rounds in the market!

Let us hear from the founder of the charcoal product himself.  “I lived in Leribe and used to work as a teacher in Maseru, commuting every day,” Rammitikoe said. “Every time I passed through Maseru, I was struck by the prevalence of charcoal use on the streets of the town.”
“Then, I thought, but we are buying it all from outside, why can’t we produce it right here in Lesotho?”
Rammitikoe was then determined to find a secret or two about charcoal. So he made a thorough study.

A born doer, he then started experimenting until he realized he was able to produce some charcoal from local Eucalyptus trees.
He was not intent on relishing the thrill of being able to make charcoal and then stop there.
He wanted to produce and sell it!

“I made a few bags and left it on the streets of Maseru with some grilled meat vendors. When I came back from work, most of the vendors were impressed by my charcoal.” It was just as good as charcoal from elsewhere, they told him!
Not only that, they also wanted to know if he could supply them with the charcoal. That was music to his ears! The Prime-Minister would have said, “Ba ne ba ruta mpshe lebelo,” they were “teaching an ostrich how to sprint.”

Ostrich is, of course, a fierce sprinter already! So he went home and started producing and selling his charcoal to many shops around the country.
But something good happened that would finally land him at the NUL. He went to Shoprite to sell his products. Someone there said to him, “You can either go to South Africa for testing your products or go to NUL.”

Presented with that choice, it was up to him to make a wise decision.  To start with, he was already skeptical as to why so much of the charcoal used daily in Lesotho was imported. Now, would he go and import knowledge, as most folks do, if the same knowledge was available locally?
The rest is history, as they say.

At the NUL he met an esteemed professor of Chemistry, Professor Heilemichael Alemu.
“I was shocked by his eagerness to help,” he said.  Professor Alemu took a young bright fellow in the name of Kabelo Makara, an astute Chemical Technologist to help. To understand their work, listen to Makara carefully as he explains what charcoal really is and why it is so important.
“It is a porous black solid, which has an amorphous form of carbon, a result of heating of wood or any other forms of organic matter in the absence of oxygen,” Makara said.

But what’s he saying? Just so we and you can have at least a faintest glimpse of what’s going on, let’s try.
When wood burns, oxygen from air is combining with carbon in the wood to form carbon dioxide and energy in the form of heat.
“But when wood is burned in the absence of oxygen, something called thermomechanical conversion is going on,” Makara, said.
“In this case, heat only, not oxygen, helps in the release of atoms that interfere with efficient burning of wood. They are released as gases or liquid.”
In that release, more and more free carbon is left, and that is the key.

We say free carbon because carbon atoms in natural wood are bound to other atoms like hydrogen and oxygen (ever heard of carbohydrates?).
Unlike bound carbon atoms, free carbon atoms burn easily, releasing much more heat. But bound carbon makes more ash, hence wasted heat energy.
That is, if you have always wanted to know why you buy charcoal instead of wood to grill your meat.
Now you know!

So here are some of the parameters Makara tested in the charcoal:
(1) Ash content: more ash, less carbon, less heat
(2) moisture content: more moisture, harder to burn
(3) volatile matter content: more volatiles, easier to ignite
(4) Nitrogen

(5) Sulphur contents: More of these, more pollution (ever heard of acid rain?)
“I used Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) limits and adopted testing methods by ASTM standards. I am happy to say, the charcoal met ALL the required standards,” Makara said.
And how did the client, Rammitikoe, feel?
“I’m jubilant, to say the least.”

“Even more, I learned about other uses of charcoal from an amazingly fine NUL report which took six months to produce, including the possible uses of the gases emitted during charcoal production and the use of activated charcoal on polish.”
“I feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” NUL giants, to be succinct!

Own Correspondent

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