Unpacking the evidence on firewood and charcoal in Africa

Charcoal sellers in Mozambique.World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) archives

Charcoal sellers in Mozambique.World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) archives

Woodfuel meets around a tenth of the world’s energy demand, with its users overwhelmingly found in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, nine out of ten people—around 760  million individuals—rely on firewood and charcoal as their primary source of energy for cooking, heating and other uses.

In 2007 charcoal was a US$8-billion industry, employing more than 7 million people in the sub-region, according to World Bank estimates. The  sector has been growing by around 3 percent annually since the turn of the 21st century, according to FAO data. Woodfuel as a source of energy, commerce and employment makes it an important socioeconomic asset to the continent. But woodfuels, and particularly charcoal, are also clouded by controversy and obscure regulation.

They have been linked to forest degradation, deforestation, and respiratory diseases (from indoor smoke), and major efforts directed at reducing or replacing their use. These initiatives, such as promoting fuel-efficient stoves; introducing modern, more efficient charcoal-burning kilns; and encouraging the use of alternative fuels like gas, kerosene and electricity, have had mixed results in Africa. Furthermore, in countries like Kenya and Namibia where charcoal is legal, the regulatory framework for stakeholders is complex, multi-layered and obscure, and periodic bans on the production and trade of charcoal are not uncommon; these bans are not always effective.

Given the importance of wood-based fuels in Africa and their strong ties to people’s livelihoods and the environment, researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), initiated a literature review of the status of woodfuels in sub-Saharan Africa. The work is being done under the auspices of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

On 11 September, Miyuki Iiyama, a socio-economist with ICRAF, presented the preliminary findings of the review, which is looking at demand, supply and policies around woodfuel and charcoal . Her talk, at a seminar during the Centre’s recent Science Week 2013 in Nairobi, gave several insights into wood-based fuel production and trade, as well as the many gaps in the knowledge and data that still exist.

“The importance of woodfuel, and particularly charcoal, is strong and growing,” she said. “By 2030 charcoal is expected to become a US$12 billion industry, employing 12 million people.”

“We found that charcoal production by rural areas to meet the energy demands of urban areas is one of the major causes of the systematic degradation of dryland forests.”

The study also found that land clearance for agriculture is a major cause of deforestation in some areas, but this is often blamed on charcoal. “Clearing trees to make way for farming results in some charcoal production as a by-product, when those felled trees are converted to charcoal,” said Iiyama.

The distinction between forest degradation and deforestation is important, she said. “A degraded forest ecosystem from which live trees have been harvested for wood can regenerate, but the sustainability of this type of selective removal of trees depends on the speed of ecosystem recovery against that of harvesting,” she explained. “But when trees are cut completely and the land is converted to other uses, that is deforestation, which causes permanent changes to the ecology.”


Carrying firewood. Karama, Rwanda, 2012. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

The researchers found a paradox, in which agroforestry systems supplying woodfuel were not necessarily recognized as such. In Ethiopia, farmers from 9 woredas (districts) involved in the Trees of Food Security project, which is co-funded by ACIAR and implemented by ICRAF and partners, told researchers that firewood and charcoal was the most important use of trees on their farms. However, farmers here often did not give priority to planting trees for the express purpose of producing fuel. “The fuelwood in these communities came primarily not from forests, but from prunings and trees from agroforestry systems, scrubland, and bush fallow. The sustainability of this supply depends on whether farmers can actively plant or protect naturally regenerated trees,” stated Iiyama.

Iiyama and co-researchers also found regional differences in fuelwood production. In the West African Sahel and dry savanna, for instance, wood for fuel was gathered through selective cutting and coppicing of trees from woodlands, while in east and southern Africa, clear-cutting or felling of desirable trees for charcoal production was more common.


Burning charcoal in Mozambique. It takes 8-10 tonnes of wood to make a tonne of  charcoal with this setup. Modern kilns are more efficient, at around 3.5 : 1 ratio of wood to charcoal. Photo: Valter Ziantoni/ICRAF

Because of the obscure regulatory environment surrounding charcoal, many producers and traders simply sidestep officialdom, dealing instead through  cartel-like operations that control the commodity’s transport and sales chains, or bribing their way out of any hurdles. Iiyama cited a small study of charcoal transportation from Namanga on the Kenya-Tanzania border to Nairobi, 165 km away. This study was done as a part of a recent report by the Kenya Forest Service on the charcoal value chain in the country.  “Bribes during transport can amount to 10–30% of the final price of charcoal, which results in low returns for producers and higher prices for urban consumers,” she said.

Nonetheless, the widely predicted ‘fuelwood crisis for Africa’, with steeply rising prices for urban consumers, “has not taken place at the scale predicted.” said the presenters. This means that many gaps remain in the knowledge.

At the same Science Week forum, Gillian Petrokofsky, a researcher with the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford University, described the philosophy and process of Systematic Reviews. By taking into account both quantitative and qualitative data from a broad range of stakeholders, such reviews are able to produce a clear-eyed and balanced synthesis of the evidence around a particular topic. Systematic review are common in fields such as medicine, crime and justice, and social policy. They make for a valuable reference for policymakers seeking to shape evidence-based policies. See the Evidence-based Forestry initiative website for more information.

“Without good science, good solutions are unlikely to be found. A mix of the best science, expert opinion and the needs and preferences of society is what we need,” said Petrokofsky.

The final results of the review by Iiyama and colleagues are expected in 2014, in the form of a white paper on wood energy. The findings are bound to shed more light on the status of charcoal and firewood in sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps debunk some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding this well-loved renewable energy resource.


Download presentation: Title: What happened to the charcoal crisis? systematic reviews as basis for evidence-based policy on wood-based fuel in Africa, by Miyuki Iiyama (ICRAF), Gillian Petrokofsky (University of Oxford/CIFOR), Peter Kanowski (CIFOR) and  Yannick Kuehl (INBAR): http://slidesha.re/GzItcN

Download fact sheet: CharcoalFactSheet-ICRAF

Watch Video:  The fuelwood crisis: http://bit.ly/1c3uPM8


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More people, more trees: the pathway to food and nutritional security in Africa- bit.ly/12RLtnT

Is that hot shower deforestation-free? http://bit.ly/15KAkYI

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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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