Africa: Kenyan Coffin-Makers Offer a Green Send-Off

He may have had few chances in life, but Moses Sawanga now finds visible fulfillment in making the last thing most people will ever need – and doing so in a green way.

World Environment Day on June 5 found Sawanga hammering away at coffins at his makeshift workshop in Huruma, a slum about 7 kilometers (5 miles) from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

For a man who has spent the last two decades mastering his craft, getting by has never been easy, especially with conventional coffins.

“Wooden coffins are difficult to make and require a lot of work,” he says. “It can take as long as two days to complete one.”

The high cost of timber, and government regulations on consumption of forest resources, are additional challenges for this 42-year-old migrant from western Kenya.

These days however, Sawanga has carved out a niche building coffins from recycled wood chippings and paper. He was inspired to make the switch because this type of coffin is easier to make and more cost-effective. He can now knock out two in a day.

“People like it because it is glossy, comfortable and light,” Sawanga says, with the panache of a salesman confident the end users of his products won’t contradict him.

And, as policymakers struggle to green their economies, there may be important lessons to be learned from a more environmentally sustainable approach to a product for which demand stays constant.

The recycled coffin, which studies show to be biodegradable, weighs around 30 kg (66 pounds), considerably less than a conventional wooden coffin, but is strong enough to hold a body of 120 kg (264 pounds), according to its proponents.


It is an innovation that is catching on in Kenya, and is proving an attractive business opportunity for bigger enterprises like the East Africa Packaging Industry (EAPI).

The company has developed what it calls an eco-friendly coffin, branded eco-Jeneza in the local Kiswahili language, made of recycled paper and plastic waste.

According to EAPI official Meshack Dwallow, the coffin has been successful in other parts of the world, and is affordably priced between $29 and $119.

Paul Van Brussel, general manager of Lee Funeral Home in Nairobi, says traditional coffins still have a wider circulation, but nowadays he often places a monthly order for up to 10 of the recycled-material coffins from EAPI.

“Demand for the recycled coffin is rising,” says EAPI’s Dwallow. But he admits “there are a few Kenyans who think using this product is disrespectful of the dead.”

Such people keep Josephat Simiyu’s business of conventional coffin-making afloat. But they are also putting pressure on the environment – which Kenya, like other countries, can ill afford.

At his makeshift stall near the Ngong forest on the western flank of Nairobi, Simiyu earns his living making coffins with hardwood timber.

Even if he gets an order for just one coffin a day, he says, at a retail price of up to $100, it is enough to sustain his business.

“I deliver what my clients need,” says Simiyu. “Customers still prefer the traditional coffin because it is strong enough to hold the body.”

Simiyu estimates that a typical coffin weighs around 80 kg, nearly three times the weight of a coffin made of recycled materials.


The national Births and Deaths Registry estimates that about 2,000 Kenyans die every day.

If Simiyu and coffin-makers like him use Meru oak – the country’s biggest tree species – four trees would have to be felled per day to provide enough wood, according to Tony Simons, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), an international research organization.

Moreover, an additional 292 tonnes of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere, since each Meru oak can capture and store about 73 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to Simons.

“We need innovations that reduce reliance on the forest cover,” he told a media briefing in Nairobi. “The carbon market alone will not stop deforestation.”

When it comes to funeral caskets, environmental costs may not be foremost in the minds of grieving customers. But continued reliance on timber for a wide range of purposes – from cooking to coffins – will mean further pressure on forest resources.

The State of East Africa Report 2012 estimates that the region has lost more than 22 million hectares (54 million acres) of forest cover in the last two decades.

In 2010, Kenya’s forest cover was 32 million hectares (79 million acres), or 58 percent of its land area.

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) says Kenya is making progress in boosting its forest cover by 10 percent each year as required by the country’s constitution.

According to KEFRI’s director, Ben Chikamai, there is a new push to encourage small-scale tree farming to reduce the pressure on forests.

“We are also encouraging traders to make use of alternative sources of timber such as bamboo,” says Chikamai. “This will help meet a growing demand for the resource in the construction industry.”

Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.


Posted by on Jun 27 2012. Filed under Environment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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