Accepted paper:

Closed loop, silver bullet: biomass briquettes and moral labor in a Kampala slum


Jacob Doherty (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

Biomass briquettes made of organic waste promise to solve African crises of livelihoods, sanitation and deforestation. Briquettes production reveals that the closed loop converting waste to wealth is predicated on producing and managing the imagined socio-moral difference between community and slum.

Paper long abstract:

Biomass briquettes have emerged as a development silver bullet, simultaneously tackling crises of unemployment, urban waste management and rural deforestation. Briquettes have captured the imagination of international environmental NGOs operating in many African cities who promote briquette production, partnering with local community based organizations (CBOs) to improve urban livelihoods and sanitation. Made by transforming organic garbage into a new fuel source, they promise to turn waste to wealth. They do so by positing a virtuous circular economy that closes the metabolic rift between the city and the country that has accelerated in the context of rapid urbanization. Based on ethnographic research conducted in Bwaise (a low-income informal settlement in Kampala, Uganda), this paper examines the work that goes into producing briquettes, particularly the bureaucratic labor that goes into producing the 'community' of community based organization on paper as both technically capable and morally sound. This immaterial bureaucratic work is moral labor, a precondition of the material labor of gathering and sorting household waste and transforming it into bio-mass briquettes. While it is essential to making the waste-to-wealth project viable, it has the additional effect of exacerbating differences of gender and education within the CBO and between the CBO and the rest of Bwaise. Ultimately, the closed loop of the waste-to-wealth project is made possible by producing and managing the imagined socio-moral difference between community and slum.

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Closed loops, loopholes, and profit: interpreting geographical imaginaries of material conversion