Beyond bans: Toward sustainable charcoal production in Kenya

Experts say community engagement is the solution
Buckets of charcoal
Charcoal sold in a Nairobi market. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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Located strategically between Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa, Kitui County has long been one of Kenya’s most important charcoal production hotspots.

The local economy is mostly based on agriculture, but for farmers charcoal production is an important coping mechanism to secure a year-round income, particularly during the long dry season that lasts from May until October.

However, decades of unchecked wood harvesting have taken a toll on the county’s woodlands and indigenous trees. Although research conducted by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) shows that most farmers source wood from their private plots, very few of them apply any tree management practices. As a result, the most suitable tree species for charcoal production, an important source of energy in Kenya, have become scarce.

In an effort to address environmental concerns, in January 2018 the governor of Kitui banned the sale and transport of charcoal out of the county. A month later, a nationwide logging moratorium followed. Aimed at avoiding further loss of Kenya’s forest cover, it effectively banned movement of charcoal, but not production and use.

Yet despite the ecological aims of these measures, the result was to relegate charcoal production and trade to a complex regulatory limbo that has fueled a new underground supply chain, according to ICRAF researchers.

Where there is demand…

Kenya’s urban centers are highly reliant on charcoal to meet the population’s energy needs. In Nairobi alone, 86 percent of households use charcoal for cooking and boiling water and 43 percent use it as their main energy source. Ecological alternatives such as briquettes made of charcoal dust or sawmill waste, have failed to gain widespread consumer acceptance due to local sociocultural and economic barriers.

On the supply side, farmers lack livelihood alternatives and trade continues out of necessity. Kitui charcoal thus continues to flow into cities for the urban dwellers who need it.

The fallout from restrictive measures is that for two years now the sector has been forced underground.

In these new circumstances, ICRAF’s research shows that farmers are now making less profits (the research was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic), as transporters are charging higher fees due to the increased restriction on movements – if caught, they risk paying hefty bribes and fines, or even having their vehicles confiscated. This cost is also partially transferred to consumers, who must now pay more for sacks of their charcoal.

Overall, Kitui charcoal production is estimated to have decreased 60 to 65 percent from pre-ban levels.

“This has become a lose-lose situation, whilst many rural families in Kitui have lost an important income source, trees are still cut unsustainably and trade continues unsupervised with millions lost in revenue,” says Phosiso Sola, a scientist with ICRAF. “This is a clear example of why restrictive policies that ban wood fuel without securing access to appropriate alternative livelihoods and energy sources result in many unintended outcomes.”

The way forward

Since 2018, ICRAF and the Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA) have been working with communities in Kitui to develop community action plans and pilot interventions to support better management of natural resources.

As part of the European Union funded Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) project, they are developing a Community Action Planning (CAP) model that can support sustainable charcoal production.

“Our approach is to educate communities on the importance of protecting natural resources,” said Anthony Katema, project manager with ADRA. “We believe that with the adequate support to Charcoal Producers Associations and Tree Gowers Associations, we can ensure net gains in tree cover.”

According to the experts, the first step is to work with farmers to improve woodland management. Options include natural regeneration, sustainable tree harvesting (as opposed to unchecked tree cutting) and tree planting on degraded lands.

Another important measure is to promote efficient processing and carbonization of wood as part of the charcoal production process. ICRAF’s research shows that 90 percent of Kitui’s charcoal producers use traditional earth mound kilns, in which wood is stacked above the ground and covered with earth. This method is widely used because it does not require initial costs, but small improvements could reduce unnecessary tree felling.

Finally, working with consumers to promote cleaner cooking can make an impact. Through awareness-raising and capacity building, communities are more likely to accept the idea of using less familiar, but more efficient stoves, as well as other wood-based products like briquettes and pellets.

Towards a paradigm change

For as long as the charcoal trade is “banned,” it will be even more difficult to tackle the key issues that hamper sustainable production, according to Sola. “We need to move towards better institutional arrangements and regulatory frameworks that can guide, support, control and incentivize compliance in the charcoal value chain.”

With that goal, ICRAF and ADRA are working with the Kitui government on the development of a roadmap toward improved woodlands management, including support for sustainable wood fuel value chains.


This research was supported by the European Union.
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