BonZeb photos
Haitians work in a wood charcoal operation. An Oregon project would use native grasses for charcoal briquettes.
BonZeb photos
Haitians work in a wood charcoal operation. An Oregon project would use native grasses for charcoal briquettes.
A Catholic from Gresham is creating an economic engine for Haitian workers. In one fell swoop, Tom Stein’s project might also relieve deforestation on the island nation.
The project began in Stein’s barbecue.

A former Archdiocese of Portland youth ministry director, he later purchased a Catholic book store. One of his duties was to create ashes for Ash Wednesday by burning palms. By accident, he found that inserting flame into a barbecue full of smoldering palms would remove the gases and cause the palms to carbonize.

Move forward more than a decade. Stein led Louverture Cleary, a Catholic school near Port au Prince which has strong support from Oregon Catholics. While in Haiti, Stein learned that jobs are scarce and woodland even scarcer. He saw that Haitians cook with charcoal made from trees. He took note of vast grasslands.

Stein put his observations together and has devised a way to make high-quality charcoal briquettes from carbonized native grasses. The project is called BonZeb, Creole for “the good grass.”

A kiln — a 10-foot-tall barrel within a barrel — is being tested near Hermiston and will be shipped to Haiti when ready to begin a pilot project. A single kiln could produce two or three tons of charcoal per day, enough to handle the needs of 1,500 Haitian households. The grass charcoal will burn hotter and cleaner than wood charcoal, Stein says.

Stein at first planned a traditional business venture. But then he shifted, designing BonZeb as a collection of small local businesses. Haitian farmers, business owners and government leaders are taking part. Half the revenue will go back into local infrastructure, meaning more Haitians will get work.  

“This is not a way to make anyone rich. It is a way to create jobs,” Stein says.  
Unemployment at Haiti hovers at about 80 percent.

Stein explains that the business model proceeds from his faith.

“I have always been mission oriented,” he says. “It’s been natural to me to work on the abilities of others.”

Stein is looking for $250,000 from donors to get a pilot project started. So far, supporters have given about $23,000.  

The mayor of one Haitian municipality has turned over 2,500 acres of steep grassland to BonZeb for a sustainable project that will employ people to plant, harvest, carbonize and shape charcoal.

Stein hopes in the next three years to have 25 small plants going, each employing 50 to 75 workers. In the long run, he envisions 400 small businesses employing 14,000 people and producing almost 700,000 metric tons of charcoal per year. That would serve 1.2 million homes and lower fuel cost for families.

Almost 98 percent of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed for construction and charcoal. Without an alternative source for cooking, scarcity means the cost could rise out of reach for common folk. Already, most Haitians spend a quarter to 40 percent of their income on charcoal.

The BonZeb board of directors includes people from Oregon and Haiti. Directors plan to expand operations to Africa and the Philippines, saying briquette production could work in any tropical country because the right kind of grass grows fast in the climate.