Undying flame: Replacing fuelwood with bamboo may help to combat Africa’s deforestation crisis

The industry is already worth US$1 billion in China.

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Photo courtesy of INBAR.

DURBAN, South Africa (21 December 2011)_Bamboo charcoal is a viable, clean and sustainable alternative to fuelwood and may be the key to combating soil degradation and massive deforestation in Africa while still meeting domestic energy needs, say experts.

“Bamboo charcoal could provide an excellent alternative to hardwood charcoal production as bamboo biomass production is much greater and considerably more sustainable,” said Terry Sunderland, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

It takes 7 to 10 tonnes of raw wood to produce one tonne of wood charcoal, making fuelwood collection an important driver of deforestation in Africa, a continent of nearly one billion people who have few alternative fuel sources. About 80 percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa depends on forest wood for fuel, and scientists believe that deforestation across the Horn of Africa, particularly for firewood harvest, has contributed to the pervasive drought in the region.

Years of tree-clearing, particularly in hard-hit Somalia, have eliminated fragile forests that stood as the last line of defense against the conversion of sparsely forested dry lands and pastures into useless desert, according to research by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet and produces large amounts of biomass, making it an ideal energy source. Tropical bamboos can be harvested after just three years, rather than the two to six decades needed to generate a timber forest.

“Most species of bamboo are extremely fast growing and their durability is much under-appreciated. The growing of bamboo can provide fast economic returns, aside from the biological advantages of slope stabilization and carbon sequestration,” said Sunderland.

“Bamboo can also provide extremely fast economic returns for rural households due to the ability of most species to grow on marginal lands, in conjunction with agriculture.”

Bamboo grows naturally across Africa and may present a viable, clean and sustainable alternative to fuelwood, said Professor Karanja M. Njoroge, Executive Director of the Green Belt Movement.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has over 2.75 million hectares of bamboo forest, equivalent to roughly 4 percent of the continent’s total forest cover … unlike trees, (bamboo) regrows after harvest and lends itself very well to energy plantations on degraded lands. We should put it to good use to provide clean energy for the continent.”

A partnership among African nations and communities, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and China are working to substitute hardwood with bamboo charcoal to meet firewood needs in rural communities.

Initial successes with bamboo charcoal in Ethiopia and Ghana, which have put bamboo biomass at the center of renewable energy policies, are spurring interest in countries across the continent and prompting calls for greater investment in bamboo-based charcoal production as a ‘green biofuel’ that can fight deforestation and mitigate climate change.

“With further investment and policy reform, community kiln technologies could be up-scaled to reach thousands of communities in Ethiopia,” said Melaku Tadesse, National Coordinator for Climate Change Unit at Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture. A number of African countries are pressing for development of their own bamboo charcoal industries to provide sustainable, affordable energy for growing populations.

China is a global leader in the production and use of bamboo charcoal. The sector is worth an estimated US$1 billion a year and employs over 60,000 people in more than 1,000 businesses. Chinese partners, including the Nanjing Forestry University and WENZHAO Bamboo Charcoal Co., are helping to adapt equipment like brick kilns, grinders and briquette machines, as well as hand tools for bamboo charcoal and briquette production using local materials. Building on this momentum, an INBAR initiative called the Bamboo as Sustainable Biomass Energy is now transferring China’s advanced bamboo charcoal technologies to sub-Saharan Africa.

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