Company aids forest conservation efforts in Africa

Farmers may want to think twice before getting rid of their excess wheat-stock, because a company in Talent is putting their leftovers to good use.

StrawJet, Inc. is working with the United States Agency for International Development to reduce de-forestation in Sub-Saharan Africa, using recycled agricultural products in place of timber.

StrawJet manufactures building products using a carbon-neutral style, which chief operations officer Mark Weir calls "an alternative to conventional building."

"We take waste agricultural stock, basically any waste material that's over 2 feet in length," he said. "We feed it through our machine, and the result is what we call StrawJet cable."

That cable is actually a tightly packed piece of building material, wrapped in coil by the machine. The agricultural stock — whether it is wheat, rice stock or any other fibrous material — comes out looking like a rod.

Those rods are grouped into fours to make "quads," and the result is a thick bundle of re-used material, steady as wood and with no carbon footprint. The machine is already considered a breakthrough, having won the 2006 Modern Marvels Project invention of the year.

"We integrate those together in different configurations and create various building members out of that. You can think of it as kind of like a lumberyard, but without any lumber involved," Weir said.

The idea of offering its services to international aid efforts came just last year. Weir traveled with a team of StrawJet organizers on a self-financed trip to Malawi, in Southeast Africa. They went last spring, and were exposed to a society powered mostly by wood, rather than electricity.

Malawi's primary cash crop is tobacco. More than 75 percent of the county's export money comes from those crops. The tobacco is harvested and readied for distribution in specially made wooden huts. Weir estimates there are 30,000 such huts across Malawi.

"It was a very large component of the deforestation that was occurring there," he said. (The huts) only last for a couple of years, then the wood is eaten by termites and they have to go cut down more trees."

In Malawi, the StrawJet team saw an opportunity to put its machine to good use. And they did just that, helping construct new tobacco huts.

The material they used? Old tobacco.

"Instead of cutting down a ton of wood to build a tobacco drying shed, they were able to use 3,000 pounds of waste tobacco husk to build the same product," Weir said.

The experiment was such a success that the International Development Agency agreed to keep working with StrawJet on future projects, not to mention broadening its current operation in Malawi.

Weir took the news in stride. He knows his work has the potential to impact thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on such innovation.

"The machine can run on biodiesel, it's portable, very carbon-neutral. That's kind of a key component for us," he said, adding that he hopes its use can be expanded to make a difference in Asia and South America, as well as Africa.

"We're really looking to expand this product, especially for affecting deforestation in the developing world."

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