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The heat is on: Managing wood fuel sustainably in sub-Saharan Africa

How to make wood fuel an affordable source of clean energy to meet food, nutrition, and livelihood demands

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Wood fuel is a major component of Africa’s future and will remain a significant source of renewable energy in the region by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency’s regional energy outlook. How the region will cope with the demands of its fast-growing population, without compromising its forests, is a huge challenge.

“We need effective and innovative interventions to reduce demand and enhance the sustainability of wood fuel supply,” said Xia Zuzhang, a forestry officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who spoke at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) digital conference in Bonn, Germany on sustainable wood fuel value chains for food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, 2.8 billion people globally lack access to clean cooking solutions, the majority of which rely heavily on harvested wood and trees from the forests, a recent Sustainable Development Goals progress report on affordable and clean energy revealed. In Africa, around 63 percent of households use wood fuel for cooking, FAO reports.

Cleaner alternatives, including solar, nuclear or wind energy are often not yet viable, as most people and governments in the region cannot afford the price per kilowatt-hour or the hefty cost of the required infrastructure.

Perceptions of charcoal and firewood use and production are bleak. “Quite often people have a negative association with the concept of wood fuel,” said Ruben Walker, chief executive and founder of African Clean Energy  (ACE).

As a result of this misconception, governments end up enacting policies that ban or restrict wood fuel trade, hindering people from practicing traditional livelihoods, he said.

“Putting up a ban is an effort to control the levels of production and trade of wood fuel, but not necessarily its consumption,” said Phosiso Sola, a scientist working on natural resources governance, bioenergy and development of sustainable agroforestry value chains with World Agroforestry.

“Imposing bans doesn’t disrupt the entire value chain and typically never achieves its desired objective,” she said, adding that instead, soaring demand causes a spike in wood fuel prices, making its production attractive to outsiders and encouraging illegal and unregulated harvesters to join the industry.

Solving this complex issue of finding alternatives to unsustainable wood fuel use requires multi-pronged innovative solutions, many of which are being demonstrated and tested across the region. These include enhancing harvesting practices, empowering community groups, improving landscape management and promoting innovative technologies.

Panelists at the GLF session, organized as part of the European Union-funded Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) project, floated a few specific challenges and solutions.

In this context, food security means households are able to produce, cook, process and preserve food since wood fuel is often readily available in the local markets. When people have access to cooking fuels, it enables them to cook raw meat and vegetables and to boil water, making meals safe, hygienic, and nutritious and preventing them from catching sickness due to harmful pathogens. To meet their food security and safety needs, people in sub-Saharan Africa need consistent energy supply.

Regardless, the immediate widespread challenge involving unsustainable trade and production of wood fuel in the region is worrying because of the rapid depletion of trees and, consequently, degradation of forests. Massive population growth and rapid urbanization exacerbate the situation, with 1.5 billion urban dwellers residing in African cities by 2050.

While firewood is more accessible for rural dwellers, many people in cities and surrounding areas use charcoal for cooking food. “High urbanization is not equal to access to clean energy,” according to Sola. Urban households are faced with limited options for cooking alternatives, which calls for more charcoal supply. We need to address the problem in a holistic way as the issue moves beyond borders. “More charcoal is coming through (from other countries), that is shifting the problem to your neighbors,” Sola added.

In Kenya, Prosopis juliflora, commonly known as mathenge or mesquite, is a tree species that was introduced to the area in the 1970s to alleviate desertification. It is now a huge challenge to many communities as it has invaded vast areas and has taken over grazing and cropping lands. To solve the issue, Prosopis is now promoted as firewood and material for charcoal production. Mass production of Prosopis charcoal is being explored as a means to contain its spread and to reclaim land and plant native species.

Zambia is taking the strategic approach of organizing charcoal associations through which producer groups are empowered with knowledge on sustainable charcoal production by learning how to select the correct species, cut down or prune trees to allow regeneration, choose locations where it is appropriate to cut trees, and use improved kiln systems.

“We organize the charcoal producers and use peer pressure to ensure that each group is following the guidelines,” said Musonda Kapena from the Zambia National Forest Commodity Association.

In Cameroon, an influx of refugees has added stress to its forests and natural resources. Displacement has amplified demands for food and fuel and in the process converted rural communities into small cities.

“When we talk about refugees, we talk about the whole landscape,” said Abdon Awono, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research. Improving land systems is a way to sustainably harmonize food and energy requirements in a landscape. Integrating trees – both for food and fuel – into crop and livestock production systems in refugee camps has formed part of efforts to address the needs of displaced people and local communities.

Social enterprise ACE offers a hybrid household energy system as a solution for cooking. From animal dung to sticks and twigs, their hybrid stove can efficiently burn agricultural waste or solid biomass, such as charcoal briquettes, without releasing harmful smoke. It also provides basic electricity needs for LED lighting, mobile phone charging and to power such small appliances as radios.

“Using biomass isn’t necessarily bad,” said Walker, while showing a stove prototype to the GLF Bonn 2020 audience. “There are many examples of using biomass in a good way.”

Investments to find appropriate, affordable, and accessible technologies and to support integrated landscape management approach are crucial to transform the charcoal industry and make wood fuel more sustainable, he said.

This research was supported by the European Union.
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