Sulley Amin’s mother read a Forbes magazine article about her son and smiled. In his recollection, he has never been happier than that moment. She previously had a big problem with him leaving school midway through his law degree studies, and letting all the fees she had been paying “go to waste”.
In fairness, waste is not the first word you would use to describe what he did with his fees for the University of London law degree he put a hold on. Ironically, he has rather been fighting waste with it. Every day, thousands of coconut husks (what is left after the edible part of a coconut is consumed), find their way to his place. If not for him, all that would be destined for Accra’s already polluted beaches.
In a hot Accra city, where many of the population of over two million find instant refreshment in drinking coconut water, finding an alternative disposal for the coconut waste is a very thoughtful venture. Add the thought to Amin’s knack for enterprise (he ran a power bank importing business when “Dumsor” was at its peak), and you have a young business that has already earned him a promising star status, and a page in his mother’s good books.
His business is Zaacoal – transalation: hot coal. It is the name he decided on for his brand of charcoal, made from coconut waste. It is the end product of his sad realisation that after plastic waste, the city’s next biggest waste problem was with coconuts.
He put on his curiosity jacket, and headed online to learn all about what other use the waste could be put to. “I’m a very curious person: I read about things that have nothing to do with my training. I’m reading about aircraft engines now, and I’m exploring how to generate electricity from something totally different from what we are used to. So I think it was one of those curiosity moments that got me thinking in that direction that we could use waste to make charcoal,” he tells me.
Amin would go on to learn what was done in other parts of the world, and in the process decide to start a business around it. Without any background in chemistry, he went on to figure out that if you put the coconut waste through carbonisation (a burning process with limited oxygen), you would end up with charcoal that was cleaner, longer-lasting and smokeless. That was enough to pause school, use his fees and his uncle’s help, to buy a small truck that crisscrossed central Accra collecting coconut waste. Zack, his partner, saw what he was doing, and was moved to the point where he quit his job as a tailor and immediately joined Amin.
Helped by a thinking honed during his bachelor’s degree in Development Studies at the University of Development Studies, Tamale, he knew where this was headed; the larger implications for the country. It is what inspired the confidence he had in what he was doing at the time. In his teenage years and as a young adult, Amin had always been shy. As a hobbyist DJ, he would play gigs and not even socialise with any of the partying crowd. He cured that by learning public speaking on YouTube. Enough learning to make him confident to stand for Student Representative Council President at UDS. “I lost the elections because people thought a DJ could not do anything serious except play music,” he laughs out.
Thankfully, people do not think the use Zaacoal offers them is any play. It has taken two years from the thought, to now, where he has the charcoal product in markets in Accra. It is tastefully packaged in a paper bag he designed himself, standing out from the messy charcoal we have been used to. “We compress it to make it last much longer than firewood charcoal. But more seriously, the smoke our mothers inhale alone, from cooking with normal charcoal and firewood kill more people than HIV/ AIDS, Malaria, Cancer, Tuberculosis, all combined. So we make Zaacoal to produce no smoke at all,” he explains. Even though they have acquired new machinery to increase production, the demand is still overwhelming: think about all the coconut waste in the rest of Ghana, and what he could do with them.
We are a long way out from having all the waste on our beaches and streets recycled into good use like Zaacoal. Fortunately, Amin is only a little way in. At 29, the ambition he has for his brand of charcoal, even beyond Ghana, and beyond just cooking to industrial use, is inspiring.
Forbes has crowned him a member of the enviable 30-under-30 group (a group of thirty young Africans on the path to running the biggest businesses), but when you learn of a day in his life, it is safe to assume he didn’t get the memo that it should come with some glamour. He is up at dawn, carting coconut husks from his house where the vendors dump them, to his production facility at Dodowa, outside Accra. Sulley does not want to “die an average man,” and will not spare a little dirt to ensure that. His mother and the rest of us all will surely rest easy.