Towards a sustainable tree-based bioenergy sector in sub-Saharan Africa
Susan Onyango and Phil Dobie
Africa is currently highly dependent on firewood and charcoal to satisfy its energy needs. While firewood is used extensively in Africa in industries such as cement and tea processing, the rural poor in particular depend on it for cooking. Women and children are the most affected by the need to collect firewood. They spend a great deal of time in the drudgery of collecting firewood and are exposed to the toxic smoke that firewood produces when burned on cooking fires. Charcoal is an important fuel in urban centres in Africa, but is usually neglected by policy-makers and its production and use are often unsustainable. Neither firewood or charcoal are intrinsically unsustainable: each sector needs to be managed in a way that is sustainable, provides for people’s needs to cook food, and brings equitable benefits to people involved in value chains.
Firewood and charcoal provide only the most basic kind of energy: cooking and heating. In order to further stimulate development for all, it will be important to transition to forms of energy to drive enterprise and industrialization. Biological sources of energy, including liquid fuels for transport and machinery and biomass for electricity generation, have been demonstrated to have high potential for inclusion in national energy mixes. They use indigenous resources, are renewable and can be cost effective. To achieve the right mix of biomass energy in energy sources, the right enabling policy framework is vital. Without proper policies, bioenergy will wither and countries will be stuck with polluting, diminishing fossil fuels.
According to the International Energy Agency over 1.3 billion people in the world today still lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are without clean cooking facilities. More than 95% of these energy-poor people are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries in Asia.
The latest IEA World Energy Outlook (2014) estimates that 80% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa depends on firewood and charcoal for domestic use, i.e. cooking and heating.
According to Henry Neufeldt, head of climate change at the World Agroforestry Centre, “While collecting firewood has not led to major deforestation on the continent, it can lead to local landscape degradation and firewood shortages. Charcoal, on the other hand, is produced nearly exclusively for use as cooking energy in urban settlements. Its production is largely unsustainable and is leading to serious loss of tree cover, especially in the dryland areas.”
Despite attempts by some governments to conserve forests and improve tree cover, illegal trade in charcoal and timber continues to thrive. Given the endemic levels of poverty and continued migration into urban centres in Africa, it will be decades before people move away from tree-based energy sources, to what are considered modern sources of energy.
How then can the use of charcoal and firewood in sub-Saharan be made sustainable?
Research in and the development of a sustainable charcoal sector is needed. “Although numerous studies on charcoal and firewood use have been carried out over the past decades, a vast majority of these studies continue to provide a regressive narrative on a “woodfuel crisis” that – despite significant population increase and increased woodfuel demand – never materialized in most instances and is also not supported by most recent assessments of woodfuel supply-demand simulations. ” remarked Klas Sander of the World Bank. In contrast, the value proposition of future research needs to accept wood energy as a genuine commodity and analyze technical and political challenges with a focus on solutions and opportunities rather than the continuation of emphasizing problems. Meeting the challenges of future food security through enhancing agriculture production can, for example, be seen as analogous to meeting future biomass energy needs.
How can the use of tree-based energy sources be incorporated in policies and plans on energy use?
About 80 experts and policy makers gathered in Nairobi, Kenya to draft an agenda for action to influence the inclusion of firewood and charcoal in energy planning in Africa. Discussions were around the opportunities for the sustainable use of firewood, the sustainable management of charcoal and the options for potential transition to “modern” tree-based energy based on biofuels and biomass-fired electricity generation.
“We cannot ignore the use of charcoal and firewood. If you understand the problems with these energy sources as well as their causes, we can find a solution”, said Mr. Zuzhang Xia, a forestry officer with the FAO. “We need to address problems with land degradation and supply of charcoal and firewood, including their efficient use in a more sustainable way. It will make sense to understand the issue. FAO is considering a wood fuel initiative in Africa to address this. A lot needs to be done and can be achieved through a collaborative effort of the governments, NGOs, researchers and the private sector”.
How can liquid biofuels and biomass electricity generation be promoted in Africa?
Development in Africa requires access to energy in forms that can allow enterprises and businesses to operate optimally and be profitable. Biological sources of energy, including liquid fuels for transport and machinery and biomass for electricity generation, have high potential for inclusion in national energy mixes. The use of indigenous resources, are renewable and can be cost effective. However, there are concerns about the potential for bioenergy production to compete with food production. Integrated energy-food systems can effectively meet the demands of both energy and food.
Recommendations for policy and decision-making
It was generally agreed that the use of charcoal and firewood in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to increase given the increasing urban population. The use of charcoal and firewood is not necessarily bad, as the two are renewable sources of energy and can provide a stable income to the poor.
Policy makers are called upon to support research and pilots to generate knowledge and evidence for sustainable cases, formalize the charcoal and firewood value chains including commercial entities involved in the trade, and formalize policies across sector. Research and development organizations are on the other hand called upon to develop and promote best standards and affordable and flexible technologies, as well as adapt planting materials to the local context.
The consensus was that the use of charcoal and firewood can be made sustainable within the framework of carefully crafted policies that take into consideration diverse actors in the value chain including the private sector and end users.
“Several opportunities exist for the integration of private sector in a sustainable woodfuel value chain. These include private public partnerships, community inclusive supplier networks and the establishment of dedicated rotation-based woodlots,” remarked Boris Atanassov of Greenlight, a renewable energy research and development organization operating in Mozambique.
“Existing policies do not target private sector interventions, but rather focus on communities, forest resource management and potential end users. The private sector can advocate new policy regulation as an incentive for the entry of commercial projects as well as licensing, taxation and a regulatory system to allow companies to operate,” he added.
A major obstacle to developing the use of liquid biofuels is the high level of doubt among investors that biofuels can be cost-effective in Africa. This can be countered by understanding and learning from experiences from other countries.
Options for the development of a bioenergy sector in Africa exist and can be exploited if the right choices are made. Advice on new bioenergy ventures, studies to find new biofuel alternatives and pilots are required to eliminate risks and uncertainties.
Sustainable tree-based bioenergy is therefore an avenue to support the proposed Sustainable Development Goal 7 on energy access for all.
The international community has begun to focus on the need for Africa to develop its energy sectors and ensure that everyone has access to clean energy. The UN Sustainable Development for All initiative campaigns for improved access to energy in Africa, and the Africa Progress Panel advocates transitioning to sustainable sources of energy. Bioenergy tends to be left out of these discussions. However, as the world is moving towards adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, with it targets for energy access, and the Africa Progress Panel advocates a transition to sustainable forms of energy, the time is ripe for a serious push, supported by Africa decision-makers and the international community to promote the sustainable use of bioenergy across the continent.