In a mudslide, he lost his best friend. He now uses coconuts to combat deforestation and forest fires in West Africa.

FREETOWN (Sierra Leone) — They had lost their house. They were not at the hospital, or in the morgue. The teenager searched for them in the media, but he knew that his adopted family (the people who had given him a room when he was under a bridge) didn’t make it through the mudslide.

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Three days of downpours, heavy for Sierra Leone’s rainy season, had given way to reddish brown muck streaming down the residential slopes of Sugarloaf mountain. Sinkholes were created. This hilly capital heard a sound like thunder or a bomb before the Earth collapsed.

Alhaji Siraj Bah, now 22, might have been there that August morning in 2017 if his boss had not put him on the night shift. He might have been sharing a bedroom with his best friend, Abdul, who he called “brother.”

Instead he was sweeping the floor of a drinking water plant when 1,141 people died or went missing, including Abdul’s family.

“All I felt was helpless,” he said, “so I put my attention into finding ways to help.”

Four years later, Bah runs his own business with nearly three dozen employees and an ambitious goal: Reduce the felling of Sierra Leone’s trees — a loss that scientists say amplifies the mudslide risk — by encouraging his neighbors to swap wood-based charcoal for a substitute made from coconut scraps. Juice sellers in Freetown dispose of large quantities of shells and other husks, which can be used as an energy source without the need to chop.

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His enterprise, Rugsal Trading, has now produced roughly 100 tons of coconut briquettes, which, studies show, burn longer for families who do most of their cooking on small outdoor stoves. One report in the Philippines found that a ton of charcoal look-alikes fashioned from natural waste was equivalent to sparing up to 88 trees with 10-centimeter trunks. My motivation is to save trees by growing bigger,” Bah stated on a hot afternoon in Bangkok, while chatting amongst stops for coconut waste collection. The hardest thing is spreading the word about charcoal. Everyone loves charcoal.”

The view of a hillside outside the Mortormeh community. On August 14, 2017, rocks, debris and mud flowed from above, destroying hundreds of homes and killing more than a 1,000 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Researchers weren’t sure what triggered the worst natural disaster in the West African country’s history, but some pointed to Sugarloaf mountain’s vanishing greenery. Deforestation not only releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — it weakens slopes. The canopies provide shelter from the rains and help to control floods. The roots hold the soil together. But Freetown’s mountains were becoming bare as the people took down trees to make charcoal and clear land for homes. In a country where electricity is not always reliable, charcoal was the most popular cooking fuel. Sierra Leone has lost 30 percent of its forest cover over the last two decades, according to Global Forest Watch, an international tracker.

Bah noticed that men were harvesting wood in their neighborhood almost every day. It was used to make charcoal bags. It was used by most people that he knew to cook with.

What would it take to change this?

Alhaji Bah, 22, the chief executive of Rugsal Trading, walks to his factory in Newton, Sierra Leone, on Oct. 6. During this time, workers sort coconut waste in the factory.

The idea

Growing up, Bah fixated on inventors. Mark Zuckerberg was his idol, the chief executive officer and co-founder at Facebook. According to his mother’s account, when he was 10 years old, he promised to make the next great thing. Two years later his father, who was a driver and an entrepreneur, passed away and the family had to run out of money for Bah and his sister.

So at 12, he sneaked away from home in his eastern village, hitching a ride to Freetown. He said that he saw the Promised Land. “I thought if I could make it here, I could support my whole family.”

Bah lived on the streets for four years, washing cars for food. He met Abdul while playing soccer and they became friends. For nine months, he lived with his family until the tragedy.

“After that, he was always on YouTube,” said Foday Conteh, 23, who met Bah when they were both living on the street. “He became obsessed with looking for ways to stop deforestation.”

Bah, 17 at this point, saw a video of a man in Indonesia who crafted charcoal replacements from coconut shells. Other people were also doing the same thing in Ghana and Kenya. They collected coconut shell scraps, dried them under the sun, ground them, then charred them in steel drums.

He observed the workers mix the powder and binders such as cassava flour, then feed the dough to a machine which produces matte loaves. The next step was to cut the loaves into small cubes. They could be grilled in the same manner, except that a coconut scent fills the air.

” “It seemed like a great idea for a business,” Bah stated. “I could make fuel with stuff we find on the street.”

He kept researching the concept on his boss’s computer. The machine cost about $3,000, so Bah asked for more hours and a raise. (His boss’s wife, Ejatu Sesay, recalls: “He was so young, but he was determined.”)

The wages alone weren’t enough, spurring him to follow the blueprint of another young entrepreneur he’d read about in Uganda who’d started a recycled bag business with $18. He saved money for glue and scissors. Bah visited local shops and offered to make bags from recycled paper. Customers would have to pay half upfront. The

One manager of the hotel agreed and Bah had enough capital to create a 1000 bags. The order took five days to complete and netted him $100. There were more clients. He bought the equipment he required to make coconut briquettes within a matter of months.

Employees at Rugsal Trading work on Oct. 6.
Rugsal Trading workers work to create coconut briquettes. From a small one-room home, the company now has eight acres outside of city.

The business

First Bah needed coconut waste. There was a lot of it. The shells were discarded by juice vendors all over the city. The man bagged the shells and read online instructions.

The Indonesian man on YouTube said the briquettes would smolder twice as long as charcoal, and a study in Ghana backed up the claim. Bah was able to sell this point because he understood that most buyers want to save money and would also like the benefits of helping the environment.

He presented the product to regular paper bag customers, and eventually a restaurant owner agreed to try them. She was disappointed. Bah returned her product.

The young entrepreneur needed to restart. He reached out to an entrepreneur in Ghana who had started a company that made coconut briquettes. Sulley Amin Abubakar, 35, had been fed up with seeing coconut shells around his nation’s capital, Accra, so he dropped out of law school, thinking he’d build a waste management company before realizing the debris could be a cheap energy source.

An employee slices coconut briquettes at Rugsal Trading, while newly made briquettes dry in the sun.

“Alhaji seemed so passionate, like he actually wanted to make a difference,” Abubakar said, “and myself alone cannot supply all of Africa.”

He shared tips and critiqued Bah’s process. They discussed a shared belief: “When the last tree dies,” Abubakar said, “the last man dies.”

Bah’s second attempt proved successful. The number of customers he had grew to include Freetown’s grocery shops. After leaving the factory, he built an aluminum shed on the outskirts the capital. Rugsal Trading was named after Rugiatu’s mother and Salieu’s father. He applied for grants in Africa and America.

The United Nations named him a “Young Champions of the Earth” finalist in 2019. He received an invitation the following year to pitch at a start-up conference at Harvard Business School, where he won a $5,000 prize. He was unable to find skilled teammates and equipment with the money.

Bah funded Conteh’s tuition to university. He also connected with Adama Jalloh (a student in business) through Facebook. She became Rugsal’s director and won a Nigerian pitch-a-thon that netted them about $12,000.

Bah stands in a small chicken coop with his mother Rugiatu Bah. Sign outside Rugsal Trading. Rugsal Trading’s entrance is guarded by a rooster.

The future

Rugsal grew from one room to eight acres of land outside the city.

Bah, wearing an orange jumpsuit and walking through his land, past plots of tomato and peppers and chicken coops to reach a clearing were two men hauled coconut shells in steel drums.

His mom Rugiatu greeted him smiling. Bah brought her from the village.

Nearby, four other employees in a concrete shed manned three briquette machines, crushing husks into the grinder with a tool that resembled a baseball bat. The loaves were then cut into pieces by another man who squatted on the ground. Bah tested them all with a step after drying in October heat. Anything that fell under his boot was rejected. The business produced nine tons in that one month.

“I was a homeless boy,” Bah said, “and now, on a good month, we do $11,000 in revenue.”

His mother laughed.

“He had always been like that,” she stated. “He wanted to do something big.”

Deforestation still worries him. Charcoal remains king in Africa — the continent accounts for 65 percent of global charcoal production — and people haven’t stopped hacking down trees on Sugarloaf mountain. Sierra Leone’s president was among the 100 world leaders who vowed to halt deforestation by 2030 at this year’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, and Bah hopes he sticks to his word.

” We have much more work ahead of us,” Bah stated.

He ordered a Chinese assembly line that would enable the company to produce eight tonnes of briquettes per hour. The machine should be delivered by February. Bah intends to expand in Guinea and Liberia. The forests of his neighbors are also endangered.

Abdul Samba Brima in Freetown contributed to this report

About this story

Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Illustration animation by Emma Kumer. Brandon Standley does copy editing. Andrew Braford is responsible for design and development.

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