Brushing up charcoal’s image

You cannot handle charcoal without getting your hands dirty. Similarly, the charcoal value chain in sub-Saharan Africa, a multi-million dollar enterprise, has all the makings of a dirty business. In many countries, powerful cartels control the trade in charcoal, and the business is shrouded in mystery, largely out of the reach of governments’ regulation.

Yet according to panelists at a side event of the ongoing XIV World Forestry Congress in Durban, in spite of or because of rapid urbanization in Africa, the demand for charcoal and woodfuel is growing strongly. According to the World Future Council a 1% rise in urbanization can increase charcoal consumption by 14%.

Ms Wanjira Mathai. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Ms Wanjira Mathai. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

“From rural Kenya to highly industrialized cities in Sweden, wood is an important fuel for people,” Wanjira Mathai, Director, Partnerships for Women Entrepreneurs in Renewables (wPOWER Project) and Chairperson of the Greenbelt Movement, told the packed session.

The session: “The hottest topic in forestry,” tackled the question of how to make woodfuels more sustainable, for environmental and livelihood benefits.

According to Ms. Mathai, first, people’s mindsets on charcoal need to change.

Cooking with wood and charcoal is often viewed as a ‘backward’ practice, yet over 80% of African households, including well-to-do urban families, depend on charcoal and wood for cooking and heating, she said.

Ina Neuberger, Senior Project Manager, World Future Council, said charcoal needs to be taken seriously, and the complexity and multi-dimensional scope of the problem tackled, one area at a time.

Mary Njenga, biomass researcher at ICRAF. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Mary Njenga, biomass researcher at ICRAF. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Mary Njenga, researcher in Biomass Energy at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), highlighted some of the practices and technologies that could be used to reduce the environmental impacts of charcoal.

Growing woodlots of multipurpose trees whose prunings can serve as fuelwood or be converted to charcoal is one of these. Making and using fuel briquettes, which burn longer and with less emissions, and using more fuel-efficient cookstoves and charcoal-making kilns are others.

These actions could greatly reduce the impacts of charcoal production on the environment. The harvesting of firewood and production of charcoal are in known to be a huge and growing threat to indigenous forests and biodiversity, particularly in the drylands of East Africa.

Women in Central Kenya with bamboo and bamboo products. Photo Courtesy of GreenBelt Movement.

Women in Central Kenya with bamboo and bamboo products. Photo Courtesy of GreenBelt Movement.

An important project to grow bamboo for multiple uses, including fuel, is underway in Kenya. Mercy Wanja Karunditu, Senior Program Officer, Tree Planting and Water Harvesting at the Green Belt Movement, described the new initiative of the organization—bamboo planting for environmental and livelihood benefits. A pilot programme in Murang’a country is using an indigenous bamboo species, and grassroots women are finding that the giant grass produces a high quality fuel. Bamboo, besides, can be used as fodder as well as to make products for sale.

The panel and audience at the event, which was facilitated by Esther Mwangi, scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, discussed the ways in which the woodfuel charcoal situation in Africa could undergo a deep transformation to sustainability.

Besides playing a bigger role in energy security, sustainable charcoal can become a large revenue generator for governments. In Namibia for instance, sustainably produced charcoal is exported to South Africa and Europe, bringing in significant revenue to the country and benefitting producers.

Charcoal and woodfuel has interlinkages with multiple sectors that go beyond energy. Forestry, agriculture, land use, health, social development, transport and rural/urban development are just some of these. Developing a policy framework will need cross-sector collaboration and communication among these disparate entities.

With the right mindset and collaboration, charcoal has a huge opportunity to clean up its image and become a force for development as an important part of countries’ renewable energy mix.

Related links:

See more photos at: Flickr

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[PDF] Policy solutions for sustainable charcoal in sub-Saharan Africa  [PDF], a publication of the World Future Council.

[PDF] Mara ecosystem threatened by charcoal production in Nyakweri Forest and its environs

[PDF] From transition fuel to viable energy source: improving sustainability in the sub-Saharan charcoal sector'

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 ( 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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