Zaacoal: Clean energy from coconut shells

Ghanaian entrepreneur Amin Sulley had a simple aim when he started his business: to find a way to ease Ghana of its waste problem.  Three years later, his company Zaacoal has over 25 million customers, is solving one of Accra’s biggest waste issues, creating a major positive environmental and social impact and saving thousands of lives.

Instead of using traditional materials for charcoal like wood or kerosene – which cause severe environmental and health issues – Zaacoal is made from discarded coconut shells, which are a huge waste problem in Ghana. In fact, in cities like Accra, which has over 1,000 coconut sellers, plastic is the only material to have more waste. Zaacoal is a range of smokeless, green energy charcoals made from discarded coconut shells that can be used for barbecues, shisha pipes, medical use and more.

We caught up with Amin to learn more about Zaacoal and his entrepreneurial journey:

Tell us about Zaacoal – what problems are you aiming to solve?

Zaacoal is a merger of two words: “Zaafi” a hausa word that means hot, and “coal”. So Zaacoal literally means “hot coal”. Zaacoal is solving a myriad of problems on the continent, including:

  • Deforestation and loss of vegetation: According to Ghana’s Forestry Commission, only 1.6m hectares remain of Ghana’s original 8.2m hectare forest cover at the start of the 20th Century. The deforestation rate is 2% leading to an annual loss of 135,000 hectares. 91% of all trees cut are used for either firewood or charcoal, proving that access to energy is a big challenge in the country.
  • Poor waste management: Zaacoal is contributing to building a cleaner society by producing charcoal briquettes from environmental waste. Accra alone generates approximately 2,000 tonnes of solid waste daily, of which only 500 tonnes are collected. The majority of these wastes end up in the beaches and gutters and are the major causes of floods and diseases.
  • Health hazards from smoke from firewood and regular charcoal: These fuels produce dangerous smokes that kill millions of people, whereas coconut shell charcoal produce little to no smoke at all, and are environmentally friendly. The WHO reports over 4m cooking smoke related deaths – 13,000 in Ghana.
  • Access to Energy: Over 75% of the Ghanaian population rely on either charcoal or firewood as their main or primary energy source.

How is your product different to the traditional sources of charcoal used?

Our product is very different from traditional charcoal because it is well processed to last much longer than regular lump wood charcoal, as well as being cleaner and burning hotter. It is very affordable too, and is highly accessible because customers can get it from their traditional charcoal vendor on street.

Zaacoal founder Amin Sulley on top of a pile of discarded coconut shells

What is the social impact?

Zaacoal is sold through community women groups to help increase their income levels. Our pricing is such that they make more money selling Zaacoal than regular charcoal. We are also addressing some of the social problems mentioned above.

Who are your main customers and how do they find out about you?

Our main customers are the average Ghanaian households that cook with charcoal or firewood. The idea is to make Zaacoal a household product that everyone can afford.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

My biggest achievement has been my ability to stay focused on a project like Zaacoal from idea to revenue. I look back and see how far we have come as an organisation.

What difficulties have you faced?

The first difficulty was how to start the product without money or the technical know how – I actually started it with my school fees! Another difficulty was convincing customers who had been used to traditional lump wood charcoal for years to switch to Zaacoal. That was tough!!!

What plans do you have to further Zaacoal’s positive impact across the continent?

Our plan is to scale very fast to cover most parts of the continent and the global market. We have come to realise what happens in Ghana resonates across the whole continent.



To find out more visit the Zaacoal website.