Sustainable charcoal from student start-up | BFH

07.02.2024 Former BFH student Oliver Reinhard’s startup called ‘Olis Kohle’ produces Swiss charcoal sustainably. He received support from BFH SUSTAINS for the market launch.

It was summer 2017. Oliver Reinhard had just completed his apprenticeship as a forester. At the celebration party, he picked up a bag of charcoal near the barbecue and read on the label that it came from Paraguay. “The briquettes could have been made just as well in Switzerland,” thought the newly qualified forest ranger. He did not give it any more thought and returned to the party.

During a placement on a farm that Oliver did after his apprenticeship, he came across biochar, which was fed to the cows and calves as a supplement. This was also imported and quite expensive. “The charcoal could be made just as well in Switzerland and less expensively too,” Oliver thought again.

Oliver Reinhard is the founder of Olis Kohle.
It took six years from the initial idea to the production of Oli's sustainable Swiss charcoal.

No smoke, no particulate matter

This time he could not get the idea out of his head. He decided to produce Swiss charcoal that would set new standards: it had to be sustainable, eco-friendly and compatible with social responsibility. Imported charcoal often fails to meet these criteria, as Oliver points out in our interview. Due to sloppy manufacturing processes, it often contains high concentrations of particulate matter or gives off lots of smoke when burned. Sometimes it comes from the overexploitation of tropical forests, and is often transported over long distances to reach our shops.

My charcoal is the only one in Switzerland that doesn’t give off smoke or release particulate matter.

Oliver Reinhard
Oliver Reinhard Founder of ‘Olis Kohle’

After starting his degree in Forest science at HAFL, Oliver scraped together all his savings to buy a high-grade charcoal oven, which he set up on his parents’ farm in Stammheim. The high temperatures and a dry distillation procedure enable him to produce charcoal that meets the quality targets he set himself. “My charcoal is the only one in Switzerland that doesn’t give off smoke or release particulate matter,” Oliver emphasises confidently.

He sources most of the wood from a local sawmill. This is waste wood from production that is pre-dried and requires less energy during the carbonisation process due to the low water content, as Oliver explains.

Oliver Reinhard produces sustainable Swiss charcoal with his charcoal stove for Olis Kohle.
With the financial support of Students4Sustainability, Oliver Reinhard was able to make technical optimisations to his wood-burning stove.

Selling to gourmet restaurants

Oliver’s company ‘Olis Kohle’ began production in February 2023 and has since turned around 40 tons of wood into 10 tons of charcoal. That is not bad, considering technical problems prevented the use of the oven over the summer. In August, Oliver finally got a new oven, and production has run smoothly ever since.

Oliver gets support from his parents, who help to keep the oven running six days a week. He sells around 70% of his briquettes to specialist retailers. The rest are bought by private customers, who either stop by or shop online, and several fine-dining restaurants, as the charcoal-maker mentions with a tinge of pride.

It was BFH SUSTAINS that enabled me to achieve a market presence in the first place.

Oliver Reinhard
Oliver Reinhard Founder of ‘Olis Kohle’

BFH SUSTAINS helped to launch the start-up

It is not just the owner’s parents who have helped ‘Olis Kohle’ to succeed, as BFH also provided the startup with support. Oliver received funding from the sustainability community BFH SUSTAINS for marketing, the design of the company logo and packaging. “It was BFH SUSTAINS that actually enabled me to achieve a market presence in the first place,” says Oliver gratefully.

It was also through this community that he met his colleague Andreas Jeker, a student at the Business School, who provided him with expert advice on business management. The cross-university initiative Students4Sustainability (see box), which is the successor organisation to BFH SUSTAINS, is now also supporting ‘Olis Kohle’. Oliver used this funding to make technical improvements to his oven and to carry out lab analysis on the charcoal. The results confirmed that his product meets the goals he set himself in terms of quality and environmental compatibility, he reveals with great satisfaction.

Promoting sustainable projects: Students4Sustainability

Sustainable development is one of BFH’s three strategic thematic fields, through which the university seeks to contribute to social transformation and attain the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

BFH SUSTAINS/Students4Sustainability

The BFH SUSTAINS community is one instrument used for this purpose. It has supported the development and launch of sustainable projects by students, for whom it provides opportunities to network with like-minded people. During the second quarter, BFH SUSTAINS will be transferred to the new Students4Sustainability initiative, which is jointly run by all Bernese universities.

Big plans

A second charcoal oven was recently installed on Oliver’s parents’ farm. The charcoal-maker has ambitious plans for his company: “Swiss charcoal is my go-to-market product. Ultimately, my aim is to produce biochar on a large scale.” This enables the storage of carbon in soil used for farming, improves soil fertility and generates heat sustainably, the young entrepreneur explains. It sounds like his vision is already well on the way to becoming reality.

Subject area: Innovation, Change + Entrepreneurship
Category: Story