Imagine an agricultural export, a major export, that was literally free of charge.

Something you could just pick up, off the ground. Sound far-fetched?

Well, guess what, it’s actually happening in Cuba, and it’s becoming one of their most profitable agricultural sectors.

Cuba — a country forced to innovate due to onerous and unfair US sanctions over the last half century — has turned a prickly invasive weed that blights its agricultural landscape into a profitable export that more than pays for its clearing and harvesting, Xinhua reported.

The sicklebush (dichrostachys cinerea), here called “marabou,” has found an export market as a vegetable charcoal.

Cuba’s Ceballos Agroindustrial Company, located about 450 km east of Havana in the central province of Ciego de Avila, exported almost 22,000 tons of marabou charcoal to Europe and the United Arab Emirates in 2019, generating revenues of more than US$7 million, the report said.

“This is an exportable item that had not been discovered, despite how easy it is to make and also export,” said Jorge Sanchez, the company’s charcoal specialist.

The natural resource, which had long been considered a costly problem, is now a prized commodity that “is almost free of charge,” he said.

“It is very important then to cut the marabou that invades farmland and turn it into the currencies the country needs,” he added.

The company buys the charcoal from farmers in Ciego de Avila, as well as the eastern provinces of Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, the report said.

Farmers burn the collected plant in ovens for at least five days. The charcoal is then shipped by truck to a processing center in an old ceramic factory, where it is classified according to the quality required by the clients and packed into sacks of various sizes, the report said.

In the past 14 years, the company has exported more than 266,000 tons of charcoal, bringing in about US$100 million, the report said.

The revenue allowed the company to raise wages and finance other projects, such as planting fruit trees to make juice and puree, among other things.

The charcoal sells for US$350 a ton and is considered better than charcoal made of white firewood, because although marabou charcoal needs longer time to be lit, it burns for twice as long, the report said.