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In-depth   /   20 May 2020

The challenge of charcoal

This is part two in a series of three stories that look at forests, trees and how they are used in East Africa.

As Kenya and other countries look to energy alternatives for cooking and heating, growing demand for charcoal is putting more pressure on already shrinking forests.

Photo by Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

Photo by Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

Charcoal, a high-carbon form of energy made from wood, is a fact of life in Kenya, as in many parts of the world where energy sources from natural gas to solar electricity are too expensive for most.

While charcoal provides a readily available and inexpensive source of energy for cooking and heating, it often comes at an environmental cost in the form of deforestation.


Charcoal has been used to make explosives, medicinal treatment in addition to more humble applications like cooking.

To make it, harvested wood is converted to almost pure carbon by burning it underground in a low-oxygen environment to eliminate water and compounds such as methane and hydrogen.

The result is a form of energy that when burned is hotter and releases fewer gases than wood.

It weighs less than wood, making it easier to transport.

Reference: https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/environment-health/charcoal-one-most-important-substances-ever-discovered


Charcoal is made and used in many parts of the world, including countries with large tropical forests like the Democratic Republic of Congo and those with smaller forested areas like Kenya.

A typical journey from tree to charcoal used in kitchens in Africa’s fast-growing cities involves felling lumber, converting it into charcoal in a process that can last several days, transporting it by boat, truck or by foot to as far as away as the Middle East along ancient trade routes.

Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR
hoto by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

In Kenya alone, the charcoal industry is worth 32 billion shillings ($315 million), employs half a million people and provides essential fuel for 82 percent of urban households, according to estimates by World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) researchers.

Source: FAOSTAT (http://www.fao.org/faostat)

Source: FAOSTAT (http://www.fao.org/faostat)

The East African country of 50 million has imposed logging restrictions to halt deforestation and protect trees that provide ecosystem services that include healthy watershed. Despite the ban, people continue to make and burn charcoal in increasing numbers, helping to drive up the price up by 75% in recent years, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.


In Zambia, up to 90 percent of households rely on wood or charcoal to meet their energy needs, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) researchers estimate.

Growing cities in the country are responsible for the charcoal boom.

Zambia’s National Development Plan, the country’s development blueprint, aims to increase access to alternative energy sources, and cut dependence on wood fuel to a share of 40 percent by 2030.


Unfortunately, charcoal may be cheap to purchase but it’s also dangerous for health.


An estimated 21,500 Kenyans die each year from medical conditions related to pollutants released by cooking with dirty fuels such as wood and charcoal, according to figures released in late 2019 by the energy ministry and the Clean Cooking Association of Kenya.

Because charcoal has such important implications for forests and people across Africa and beyond, researchers and organizations including CIFOR and ICRAF are working to promote better governance of the wood fuel sector and testing options to improve value chains.

And as the charcoal business expands to cater to the continent’s growing population, it is important than ever that policies identify and address these barriers in each of the countries.
As part of the Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) project, financed by the European Union, CIFOR is investigating woodfuel value chains.


Changes in policy will also change lives for people like Mwaura Chege.

The 63-year old charcoal maker makes his living from making charcoal in Kenya’s remaining forested area.

It will also affect people like Beatrice Oguttu, a resident of Nairobi’s who uses the fuel to cook staples for her family.

For these and many others, including the traders dodging police check points, sellers and transporters, many have a stake in charcoal and the livelihoods it provides.

Story development and script: Tristan McConnell | Editor: Jeremy van Loon | Video and photos: Nick Oloo, Kabir Dhanji | Video editing: Aris Sanjaya | Podcast: Anggrita Cahyaningtyas | Infographics: Jeremy van Loon, Gusdiyanto | Web design: Gusdiyanto | Project coordination: Budhy Kristanty | Production editor: Jeremy van Loon

This research was made possible through the financial support
from UNEP – UN environment programme

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was made possible through the financial support
from UNEP – UN environment programme

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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