Omar Bongo Chondo is a reformed man. The 42-year-old man was a charcoal burner and bush meat dealer before he saw the light and is now engaged in wildlife and environmental conservation, a path he confesses was not easy to walk.
The father of five says immense soul searching enabled him to abandon poaching and immerse himself in the fight against illegal charcoal burning among the local youth in Taita-Taveta County.
“I was involved in illegal charcoal burning and bush meat trade in Marungu and Bungule villages for the last five years. I have now abandoned the practice after I secured a job at Wildlife Works, the world’s leading conservation organisation,” Chondo explained.
The former charcoal and bush meat trade dealer and seven others work at the Wildlife Work’s briquette-making department. He said that charcoal burning and bush meat trade was a dangerous venture.
“I have been arrested and remanded on several occasions for engaging in bush meat trade and charcoal burning. I have spent nights in the cells and released after paying a bribe. It has been a game of cat and mouse with the law enforcement officers. Thanks to Wildlife Works for giving me the job to effectively participate in sustainable environmental and wildlife conservation for the benefit of the local community,” he says with a smile on his face.
“Somewhere along the way I saw the light and decided to abandon my bad ways by resolving to instead fight against widespread environmental degradation,” said Chondo who is remorseful for his past mistakes.
Today he is not only a gifted environmental conservation crusader but also a role model who encourages others who are wallowing in social vices to discard their bad ways.
Since embarking on his new full-time work, he has never looked back and is today encouraging the locals to grow trees and engage in environmental conservation awareness in the region.
Chondo has succeeded in engraving a name for himself and is now a household name in the county.
His awareness meetings with senior Wildlife Works officials in public meetings attract crowds.
When The Saturday Standard team visited Mackinnon Road Township, they found Chondo and his colleagues armed with overalls and gloves at their factory making briquettes out of the tree prunes mixed with wild cassava flour sourced from Uganda, which is not edible.
The cassava flour is used for binding the briquettes. Constance Mademu, the group’s team leader explained how to make briquettes using tree prunes without interfering with biodiversity conservation.
She said that they cut the prunes and dry them for some days before burning them for two hours in a drum to get the raw materials.
According to the workers, the machine makes four briquettes per interval. “We dry up the final products for five days depending on the sun. The stuff is environmentally friendly and economically viable. One briquette can cook food for at least five people. Two of the same can cook githeri, fry it and even boil water for bathing,” explained Ms Mademu.
She says after burning the raw materials, the workers then mix the stuff with the cassava flour cooked as porridge.
The mixed stuff is then put in the briquette making machine which has four chambers. The stuff is then pressed by the machine to come out of the final product which is the briquette, Mademu says.
The workers say the organization makes between 400 and 600 briquettes per day.
“The goodness is that briquettes are easy and cheap to make and light. They are also environmentally friendly because their preparation and also usage does not emit smoke,” she says.
“We are now selling one piece of the briquette which can also be made from cassava branches at only Sh10, a price affordable to all,” said Wildlife Works communications Officer Jane Okoth.
Okoth says the eco-charcoal venture has created a lot of awareness in environmental conservation to save wildlife and livestock from death.
“Through the organization’s education awareness, we have been discouraging locals not to indiscriminately cut trees but grow trees to protect wildlife,” says Okoth.
She says they have also been working with local primary schools to inculcate the culture of growing trees to conserve the environment.
Okoth said that from 2018 to date, her organization has planted some 80,040 seedlings to improve the forest cover, which now stands at about 4 percent.
“We normally distribute the seedlings in November and December, so we have not yet distributed them in 2022,” she added.
One of the customers, Fatuma Hamisi, confirms that she has been using one briquette to prepare chapati for family.
“I spend less on charcoal fuel now that I am using briquettes compared to what I used to spend using bush charcoal. One briquette is Sh10 while a kilo of bush charcoal goes for Sh50,” she said.
Okoth said her organisation has also partnered with 14 protected ranches in making briquettes, which they sell to local residents for cooking in Voi, Kasigau and Mackinnon Road Townships and Nairobi as an alternative source of fuel.
Wildlife Works operates in 100 countries and is supported by almost five million members worldwide.
Okoth says the project's objective is to protect dryland forests that form a wildlife dispersal and migration corridor between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks and to conserve the biodiversity found in those forests.
Under the reduced emission from deforestation and degradation (REDD) project, the ranches are supposed to provide alternative sustainable development opportunities for the local communities that live adjacent to the forests and to prevent the Emissions that would otherwise occur were those dryland forests to be converted to subsistence agriculture using the slash and burn methods.