In 2012, Carlo Figa Talamanca accepted the challenge to transform Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) into a profitable enterprise. Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) and Group for Environment, Renewable Energies, and Solidarity (GERES) began the development project in 2008 by employing former waste pickers in Sangkat Steung Meanchey to produce charcoal using organic waste. The factory started operations at the end of 2009. As the CEO, Carlo has since steered it to become the number one sustainable fuel producer and distributor in Cambodia.
This year, SGFE has been awarded the International Ashden Award for Avoided Deforestation due to its innovative approaches in alleviating poverty and tackling climate change. Talamanca is also the Chairman of the Green Business Committee of EuroCham, which functions to facilitate dialogue on fostering green business development in Cambodia.
Using disposed coconut shells and char waste, SGFE has optimized their production process and expects to double their annual capacity to 1200 tonnes within the next two years.
SGFE char-briquettes produce less smoke, fewer sparks, and burn longer than traditional charcoal. Since current charcoal consumption is estimated to triple in the next 20 years, SGFE is responding to critical demand as 80 percent of the population in Cambodia still uses biomass in general (wood in the rural areas or charcoal in more urban centres) to cook.
Talamanca also points out that “a ton of our charcoal can save almost seven tons of wood which means about 10 [mature] trees are saved with each ton of our char-briquettes.”
To scale up to a successful social business, he stresses the need to strive for maximized efficiency, increase profit margins and seek new opportunities. He suggests that new entrants in a competing market can be a success indicator. “As pioneers we showed them the way and since it works, we have followers.”
Additionally, it’s important to develop a strong relationship with your business partners. “It took me a while to find the right suppliers [but] … you have to find smart entrepreneurs who understand the value of your collaboration.”
“However, it is impossible to eliminate all risks,” Talamanca warns. He proposes that comprehensive data collection and sound understanding of your financial and operational performance can ensure risk management. “Of course you also need intuition, but if you have a solid background of data you can base your decision on, you can mitigate your risks.”
“To be a winner of the Ashden award just confirmed we are on the right path and gave us a lot of motivation to continue.”
With large growth margins in the charcoal market, Talamanca is especially excited about emerging interest from private investors and upcoming plans for a second factory. By leveraging social and environmental benefits, SGFE continues to demonstrate that sustainability and profitability can be achieved concurrently.