Wood fuel, used either directly as firewood or transformed into charcoal, is the main source of energy for cooking for over 60 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa, contributing to the food security and nutritional needs of millions of people. Yet, wood fuel production and trade remains an informal and understudied sector, and experts recognize that more research is needed to better understand the socio-economic dynamics across the value chain, from tree resource until final consumption.
As a result, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative to address key knowledge, technical and policy gaps in wood fuel value chains in Cameroon and the wider Congo Basin, Kenya and Zambia, with extensions into neighboring countries for cross-border trade. The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts” (GML) project, is funded by the European Union and will be implemented by CIFOR and its partners until 2021.
“We know that due to the lack of alternative energy sources and growing charcoal demand from urban centers, wood fuel production will increase in the coming decades,” said Abdon Awono, a scientist at CIFOR. “This is why our project is very relevant. Wood fuel already has an enormous socioeconomic importance; it provides millions of jobs to the people who produce, transport, trade and sell it. With the expectation that the sector will continue growing, there is a great need to fully understand its importance, dynamics and consequences,” he added.
Initial assessments show that wood fuel production and trade across sub-Saharan Africa are not organized, have weak or inadequate legal frameworks, and contribute little to government revenues. “This means that the sector has an untapped potential to contribute even more to the socio-economic development of African countries,” Awono said.
The informality of the sector also has detrimental environmental consequences, as there is insufficient regulation regarding sustainable wood fuel resource management.
“The lack of wood fuel governance, in combination with increasing demand, is resulting in forest degradation near areas of high demand, such as around urban centers or places where large populations of displaced people reside,” said Jolien Schure, associate scientist at CIFOR. “This is why we need to identify appropriate solutions to render these wood fuel value chains more sustainable.”
FROM RESEARCH TO ACTION
As part of the first phase of the GML project, CIFOR will contribute to better knowledge on the characteristics of wood fuel value chains and trade flows, including the formal and informal institutions shaping them, their environmental impact, and the different actors involved.
In Cameroon, for example, CIFOR is already conducting exploratory studies in two key geographic areas. The first one aims to provide a better understanding of wood fuel trade in the city of Douala and its surroundings. The second study is analyzing the cross-border trade flows between Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria. “This will provide us with insights on the political options to improve the sustainability of the sector,” said Richard Eba’a Atyi, regional coordinator for CIFOR in Central Africa.
Indeed, the final objective of the project is that evidence-based options will lead to concrete actions to improve the sector. “Our knowledge base will inform the second phase of the GML component on wood fuel, which will develop and test new options for sustainable value chains, while engaging with key stakeholders involved,” Awono said.
Meanwhile, the GML project on wood fuel will also give priority to complex settings, including areas with refugee camps, vulnerable ecosystems such as mangroves, and cross-border areas. “While there is a general lack of knowledge and data on wood fuel in sub-Saharan Africa, these priority zones have been particularly unattended,” Awono said. “We need to also produce knowledge and policy options that are relevant for these high-pressure areas that have specific governance challenges.”
The improvement of wood fuel value chains can contribute to the development, energy and environment agendas of African countries and their partners. “The GML component on wood fuel is the first step in the right direction,” Schure said. “A better governance of the wood fuel sector will require multi-level and cross-sectoral initiatives involving a wide range of actors. We will work to provide them with diverse options that they can adapt, scale, and replicate.”
This project can have important socioeconomic, environmental, and governance outcomes, the scientists said. On the socioeconomic side, it can help people involved in the value chains to create more economic value, generate more profits, better distribute the benefits, and in general reduce poverty. Environmentally, it can reduce deforestation and forest degradation, protect fragile ecosystems, and promote better management of forests. As for governance, it can strengthen institutions and promote cross-sectoral cooperation.
“We look forward to testing research-based pilot projects, and to working to embed the successful options into institutions, policy frameworks and investment plans”, Awono said.
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