WESTERN RESTRICTIONS CREATE INDONESIAN OPPORTUNITIES
© Duncan Graham 2006
‘Sending coals to Newcastle’ (in England) means a pointless venture. But the export of fuel briquettes to Newcastle and other Australian cities is turning the adage on its head.
Capitalising on anti-pollution laws that ban the use of wood and coal fires in the West, an enterprising manufacturer in East Java called Indocharcoal is sending near-smokeless fuel to Australia and Europe.
Made from compressed sawdust and waste wood chips the product, distributed as Woodlog and marketed as Hot Rox, meets the new standards for house warming systems and slow-burning stoves.
In the past Australians in the southern states consumed thousands of tonnes of firewood on open fires during the winter months. Scavenging forests and farms for a pick-up load of dry wood was a regular family weekend pastime, often combined with a picnic. Toasting toes on a Sunday night round glowing embers was a lovely bonding ritual.
But as the cities expanded the forests contracted and more people started burning green wood. The removal of fallen timber denied native animals their habitat. Conservationists demanded the forest floor stay cluttered.
Temperature inversion where cold smoke gets trapped at rooftop height became a new and worrying condition in the cities, particularly for people with asthma.
So open fires have yielded to closed combustion stoves and government officers check firewood sellers for the moisture content of their product. Farewell the romance of a roaring log fire.
Into this gap has stepped Krisna Setiawan who three years ago bought out the briquette-making equipment of a factory in Gresik outside Surabaya that was going bankrupt.
“Our product is made from timber-mill sawdust and waste wood chips from furniture factories,” he said.
“The waste is combined, dried and compressed, heated to about 200 degrees centigrade and then forced through a die. We don’t use any glues or chemicals to bond the sawdust.
“The briquettes are about 40 centimetres long, pipe shaped and slow burning. They are sparkless and odourless and almost smokeless.
“They don’t give off any toxins unlike coal briquettes so can be used for cooking, though in Australia the need is for heating. A 20 kilo box of briquettes sells in Australian supermarkets for about AUD $10 (Rp 65,000).
“Demand is good and growing. We’re operating ten machines working seven days a week around the clock.”
Indonesia is facing an acute briquette shortage according to government sources with supplies failing to meet demand as the price of oil-based fuels rises.
Mineral, Coal and Geothermal director general Simon Felix Sembiring was quoted by the ASEAN Energy News Service as saying the country has only three briquette plants.
The total output is 90,000 tonnes but the plants are operating at only one third of capacity. He said Indonesian industry needed 300,000 tonnes a year and households ten times that amount.
Plans were announced late last year for the state-owned coal miner PT Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam to build three new briquette factories with an annual capacity of 500,000 tonnes. However these are not expected to start before 2009.
Krisna said that briquettes made from coal were best used in industry because the discharge of poisonous gas made them unsuitable for household use.
His factory also makes charcoal briquettes for the Korean, Japanese and Taiwan markets. Again this market has developed following the Korean government banning the manufacture of charcoal to reduce pollution.
These briquettes are widely used for cooking in restaurants.
The manufacture of charcoal is an ancient art, traditionally made by pre-heating timber or coal to drive off the gasses, leaving a lightweight but long-lasting fuel which burns bright at a high temperature. Now the process is done in kilns starved of oxygen.
The US car manufacturer Henry Ford is credited with inventing the charcoal briquette using sawdust from his factories.
Krisna said that sourcing suitable sawdust and wood chips was getting difficult as other manufacturers were attracted to the industry. So he has just opened another factory at Mojokerto south east of Surabaya to make pulp packaging from recycled newsprint and cardboard.
“Styrofoam is no longer wanted as mouldings to protect electronic equipment in transit,” he said. “The industry now demands less toxic packaging so we’re meeting that demand.”
Despite his skills in spotting local trade opportunities generated by laws overseas, Krisna, 36, would much rather be at the keyboard of his piano than his laptop. He’s an accomplished classical and jazz musician.
A devotee of the 19th century Polish composer Frederic Chopin, Krisna wishes his finger work on the ivories was equal to his nimble business acumen.
Contracts are being negotiated with importers in Greece, Switzerland and Denmark keen to get Indocharcoal’s products. If this eventuates maybe a trip to Europe will follow with a side stop in Warsaw to soak up the atmosphere.
“It’s very difficult to appreciate European culture and music in Indonesia,” Krisna said. “It’s also hard to earn an income as a concert pianist in Surabaya. This is a city of commerce, not culture. So I make money by recycling and make music for pleasure.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 April 06)