Alice Rawsthorn: Extraordinary consequences

The design writer and the Fuller Challenge judge speaks about one of the prize contenders: a Ugandan social design project with “extraordinary consequences”.

In a rural community in southern Uganda, Sanga Moses’ drive to turn agricultural waste into organic charcoal is having a multi-pronged, positive spin-off on the environment and livelihoods of his countrymen.

In this exclusive interview with Alice Rawsthorn, a writer for the international edition of The New York Times prolific of design insight, she tells us about one of the projects shortlisted for the Fuller Challenge. The Fuller Challenge celebrates sustainable, social and humanitarian design and Rawsthorn is a selection panellist.

Being on the jury allowed her to find out a lot about this project. She contacted Moses, the founder and chief executive of Eco-Fuel Africa, and has kept in contact with him over the years to keep abreast of the company’s development.

Eco-Fuel Africa encourages farmers in southern Uganda to carbonise agricultural waste so that the organic charcoal produced from that process can be used to fertilise fields. This increases the yield of crops. The charcoal is also converted into briquettes for use as clean, cheap cooking fuel and those are sold to the local community.

What sounds like a tiny, rather modest social design project – making cheap, clean cooking fuel available for rural communities in southern Uganda –­ actually is something that has quite extraordinary consequences.

The simple and pragmatic act of turning agricultural waste into organic charcoal improves the efficiency of the farms, provides an additional source of income for the farmer and creates a series of knock-on incomes for others in the production and sales chain.

“Eco-Fuel Africa is for me one of the most inspiring social design projects. . .  It’s hugely inspiring to find an example of a project that’s been conceived and executed by people within the communities who are going to use it,” she says, contrasting it with “ill-conceived and badly executed social design projects by the work of well-intentioned Western designers”.

She associates the brilliance of the project with its broad implications: Dirty cooking fuel is responsible for 1.5 million deaths worldwide every year – the majority in Africa. This project has an environmental contribution to make too, contributing to the cutting down of the massive rate of deforestation that threatens biodiversity.