Charcoal consumption in sub-Saharan Africa: here to stay?

 

Bioenergy use – mainly fuelwood and charcoal – outweighs demand for all other forms of energy combined in Africa, a picture that changes only gradually even as incomes rise. Four out of five people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking. Charcoal - formed during a process called pyrolysis in which wood is cooked in a low oxygen environment- has been one of the predominant sources of cooking fuel across sub-Saharan Africa for decades, if not centuries. Other than firewood no other biomass has been relied upon as heavily by households and communities to fuel their daily lives. Now, as both global and national initiatives and investments continue to drive focus towards renewable and clean energy sources, where does the demand for charcoal stand?


Goal 7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Within this remit, “clean” or “renewable” energy is defined as energy derived from hydropower, solid and liquid biofuels, wind, the sun, biogas, geothermal and marine sources, and waste. Between 2000 and 2014, the absolute number of people relying on polluting fuels and technologies, such as solid fuels and kerosene, actually increased to an estimated 3 billion people, with limited progress particularly seen in urban areas. Responsive policies and initiatives have been instigated accordingly by global governments and transnational bodies in an attempt to curb these figures. In Kenya (population: 50 million) the Government has stated its ambition to transition Kenya to modern, clean fuels amidst its Vision 2030. Despite this, charcoal, kerosene and firewood continue to dominate the market, 85% of Kenyans still rely on these fuels for cooking.

 

 Mounds of charcoal awaiting distribution to urban markets

Mounds of charcoal awaiting distribution to urban markets

Charcoal is still used by hundreds of thousands of households - if not millions - across Kenya alone. The reality is simply that on-grid electricity access, or even advocated alternatives such as LPG and bio-ethanol-  are either too expensive, not visible or unavailable for a majority of households. While we may expect, and hope, to see an eventual and structural shift towards complete usage of renewable and clean energy sources, it is highly unlikely that this shift will occur in the short or medium term, especially amidst the trends of increasing population sizes and urbanization rates seen across sub-Saharan Africa. 

The way in which preferences for cooking fuels evolve is a complex question, & certainly more complex with the idea of a fixed “energy ladder”, whereby choice of fuel graduates from solid to non-solid fuels as households get richer.
— International Energy Agency, "Africa Energy Outlook. A Focus on Energy Prospects in sub-Saharan Africa"

For the time being, charcoal usage is set to stay, perhaps even increase, across Kenya. Use of charcoal in urban areas has risen by 64% in two decades and most people in Nairobi live within a 100 to 150 metre walk from a charcoal seller. 15% of households across Kenya use charcoal as their primary cooking fuel. While this figure might seem low (55% use firewood as their primary wood source), this percentage is in fact much larger when we consider fuel stacking. The majority of households engage in fuel stacking and charcoal is the most common secondary fuel across all income levels aside from the most wealthy, particularly as it is easier to transport and has a higher energy content than firewood.

 

The current charcoal industry in Kenya (worth $1.6 billion) is dominated by inefficiencies and informalities at every stage of the supply chain. Not only does this result in low-quality charcoal production, but it also leads to respiratory diseases, carbon emissions and deforestation (with this in particular being the reason for the Government’s ongoing logging ban). Kenya loses 10.3 million m3 of wood from its forests every year from unsustainable charcoal and wood fuel use, and household biomass fuel use contributes more than 22 million tonnes of CO2 eq each year.

 Charcoal for sale in Kenya

Charcoal for sale in Kenya

 

That is why the production of sustainable, affordable and high-quality charcoal is key to meeting the growing demands of households in Kenya while minimizing negative environmental impacts. Tinder EcoFuels uses an invasive tree species (found in abundance across Kenya and neighbouring countries) and highly efficient and modern retorts to produce sustainable charcoal. This invasive tree species damages valuable agricultural land and reduces ecosystem biodiversity through encroachment. Using this species thus turns a ‘pest’ into a valuable, on-demand resource, while mitigating deforestation and decreasing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, by disrupting the status quo by formalizing, developing and investing in sustainable charcoal production, Tinder EcoFuels is paving the way towards a structural paradigm shift for renewable and clean energy consumption.

 

Data and information for this article have been pulled from the Dalberg’s report, “Scaling up clean cooking in urban Kenya with LPG & Bio-ethanol. A market and policy analysis” (June 2018) and the International Energy Agency’s report, “Africa Energy Outlook. A Focus on Energy Prospects in sub-Saharan Africa” (2014)