Innovation provides alternative energy source

5th March 2010 By: Eleanor Seggie

Local handmade paper and products mar- keter and sales agent Phumani Paper is actively involved in assisting community-based enterprises to diversify their income base by introducing innovative products. One of these products is the ecofuel briquette.

University of Johannesburg (UJ) associate professor in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture Kim Berman explains that the fuel briquette is a round disc made of slightly decomposed and compressed plant matter, with a hole in the centre to allow the flame to breathe and burn.

“The technology of recycling agricultural waste in Phumani Paper craft enterprises around the country provides a synergy in that the waste materials from the handmade papermaking process, including the use of waste plant and paper fibre, used water and rotting or leftover paper pulp, can all be recycled to manufacture fuel briquettes. “These briquettes can be used as an alter- native energy source (for cooking and heating) and contribute to environmental conservation,” she says.

She explains that, as an alternative source of energy, the ecofuel briquette has several additional benefits in the South African context: it is a cheap and efficient source of energy and can assist in job creation; it can preserve indigenous biodiversity through the use of invasive plant species (as raw material); it can boost the local economy; and it is lightweight and can, therefore, be carried over long distances.

The research process of the ecofuel brick project consists of a network of collaborators from different disciplines, based at UJ. The aim is to develop an economically viable and marketable new product to introduce into some of the Phumani Paper enterprises, she adds.

Phumani Paper was originally set up in 2000 as a government-funded poverty alleviation project of the former Technikon Witwatersrand (now UJ) to establish a new cultural industry in handmade paper production in South Africa. It is registered as an independent Section 21 nonprofit company and has developed small business enterprises in handmade papermaking and craft production across the country.

There are currently 15 craft enterprises in seven provinces that produce handmade paper-craft products using plant fibre extracted from local or area-specific vegetation and invasive plant species. The company receives client orders through its national office and assists the enterprises through mentoring and training to deliver on orders.

Meanwhile, Phumani reports that the local and international markets are saturated with cheaper paper imports from Thailand, India and Japan. Some of these countries have mechanised the papermaking process, making their production output extremely cost effective, it says, adding that the company cannot compete, owing to the geographical positioning of its producer groups, which translates to far higher transport costs as well as high labour costs.

In response to the Asian product influx, Phumani Paper has diversified its products. It has developed value-added products made from paper, such as cards and corporate gifting, rather than producing paper sheets as a marketable item on its own. The company is also developing a range of acid-free archival papers, the first of its kind produced locally.

There has been much interest in its export market regarding product diversification, reports the company. It says that feedback from several industry trade shows has been positive with regard to environment-friendly paper craft, furniture and casted paper objects for interior design. Phumani’s main export countries include Germany, Holland, France and the US. However, most of its revenue is generated in the domestic market.

Meanwhile, Phumani will be launching the ‘Archival Paper Mill @ UJ’, that will serve as a testing unit for the development of archival paper, as well as a collaboration space for artists and researchers. Japanese papermaker and researcher Asao Shimura is currently visiting the mill. He is reportedly an inter-national expert on paper and fabric made from pineapple fibre, and is currently giving workshops, training members from the enter- prises and collaborating with artists at the UJ paper mill. The company reports that the archival unit is making cards for Phumani’s national office that are constructed during the papermaking process and contain no glue or additives, thereby decreasing production time and carbon footprints.

The archival unit is also working with the UJ mechanical engineering department to create more viable production techniques, optimising the use of water and machinery to increase production output, reports the company.

The mechanical engineering department at UJ has set aside several projects for BTech students to complete for the papermaking process. The students will be working closely with the paper researchers at the archival mill to design specific outputs, reports Phumani.

The projects include the development of a new Hollander beater (a machine used to produce paper pulp), in collaboration with a US specialist; a new paper press designed according to the archival mill’s specifications; a press for the fuel briquette programme that will increase production; a wider range of recipes using different pulps to be developed alongside the press; and a solar-powered drying system, which will be designed to increase the drying time of the fuel briquettes. This design will also be used in Phumani’s production of ‘paper pets’ at the Twanano papermaking cooperative, in Midrand.

Mentoring and Skills Development
In 2009, the company produced a visual papermaking manual, which describes, in ten posters, how a papermaking enterprise is set up and manages to be sustainable. This year, it is training the Phumani Paper enterprises according to the manual.

It also runs a mentoring programme that supports the national office staff and members of the enterprises. Other training areas include paper testing, production of Eastern techniques, training in the use of five new fibres, and paper testing for ISO compliance in the US. Product development is mentored on a constant basis throughout the national office and producer groups, reports the company.

Although its international and domestic sales dropped last year as a result of the recession, the outlook for Phumani Paper looks positive. It is currently investigating a new sus- tainability plan and a business model that, the company reports, will lead to a more commercially viable, profitable and salesdriven business.