The concept of a new economic model is gaining traction amid global efforts to reduce waste, use resources sustainably and put nature first.
But making the transition to a circular bioeconomy will look different depending on where – and who – you are. Ideas under development involve shifting the linear, production-oriented, profit-driven economy to one based on biodegradable, reusable materials and products.
In Finland, for example, businesses applying such approaches are optimizing the use of industrial batteries and improving the charging infrastructure for electric cars. In Kenya, a woman-led enterprise, Eversave Briquettes, is using charcoal dust, a waste product from the charcoal value chain, which is used as a raw material for making charcoal briquettes. Eversave also carbonizes waste from crop and tree residues, repackaging the materials into briquettes for cooking and heating, repurposing what was once thrown away.
The enterprise has grown from simple practices to currently running on middle-scale production machinery. It produces 10 tonnes of charcoal briquettes from which she earns a net monthly income of $700-800. As an orphan and a single mother of one child, with four other dependent relatives who are part of her household, her earnings enable her to provide for them.
She also employs four people full time and through her earnings she has expanded her assets and she now owns a piece of land on which she grows hay for sale.
To ensure success, the framework of a circular bioeconomy must take into account the fact that women and men worldwide engage with resources differently.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where access to such resources as wood-based fuel is critical for the vast majority of cooking and heating energy needs is often difficult, labor intensive and contingent on a gendered division of household duties, shifts would have a big impact on women. Their workloads, their ability to feed their families and their incomes would change.
Throughout most of the region, wood energy comprise 90 percent of household energy mix –for cooking and heating. Women are responsible for the back-breaking labor of collecting and transporting firewood.
In this context, a workable, circular bioeconomy approach here would acknowledge people’s need for wood energy, adding local landscape-aware twists, said scientist Mary Njenga, a leading expert on bioenergy research with World Agroforestry (ICRAF).
“Many people think that using biomass energy like charcoal, a fuel made by burning wood under controlled oxygen, just contributes to forest degradation,” Njenga said. “But the circular bioeconomy perspective is: ‘Let’s not cut down the tree, but rather use branches and some stems, allowing the tree to grow and provide other services’.”
Eco-Charcoal, another Kenyan female-led enterprise, is using tree prunings, eliminating the need to cut down trees, leading to a more sustainable approach to charcoal briquette production. The owner of Eco-Charcoal also uses portable improved kilns that can transform bits of wood 5 centimeters or less in diameter into charcoal.
The owner, who works with her husband, employs members of the local community to harvest prunings from their 25-acre dryland forest. She sells about 1.5 tonnes of charcoal briquettes a month mainly to urban restaurants, generating between $300 and $900 in sales. She currently uses simple manual production processes but plans to scale up to use automated machinery. She also aims to recruit help by building the capacity of women in the local community to prune trees on their farms. This would allow them to supply her enterprise, providing income under harsh conditions.
Scaling up tools and methods such as this would be a good start to applying a circular bioeonomy approach to a sector that has resulted in high rates of deforestation and land degradation, Njenga said. With women currently traveling longer distances for firewood as they use up nearby resources, a shift to pruning would also save time.
The technique allows household energy needs to be met, local trees to flourish and more time for women to engage in other activities.
But the “economy” in the circular bioeconomy is a driver of change. How can related changes ensure more profits locally? And for women?
In Kenya, charcoal contributes $1.6 billion to the economy and directly employs about 1 million people in production and trade, but work with charcoal is not part of the formal economy.
“The circular bioeconomy perspective is that you are really making use of every resource that can be recovered, reducing waste and pollution,” Njenga said. “Instead of throwing away waste it can be collected. And then you sell it again as an input to another process. So an output or waste from one process becomes input to another, increasing its value.”
Another example of a way to develop – and ideally to formalize – the charcoal sector in a circular bioeconomy model is to take residue like crop and wood residues, gassify them into charcoal, and package the result as charcoal briquettes or biochar. This is then sold as cooking and heating fuel or to add to soil, adding value through the processing process to items that were formerly considered waste and creating a potential source of income.
But Njenga noted that any moves toward large-scale processing should take women into account.
“When practices are informal and rudimentary, like using bare hands, rather than tools, you find that it is women,” she said. “But when things get mechanized, men tend to take over. How do we ensure that women remain in the circular bioeconomy, even when technology advances?”
Women must continue to have access to resources in spite of commercialization and a potential circular bioeconomy becoming very enterprise-based, she added.
FROM FORESTS TO FARMS TO FOODS
Due to the regional dependency on wood; a circular bioeconomy model must balance those needs while supporting the continuing availability of resources.
In sub-Saharan Africa, wood is collected from protected or community forests and from private farms. A circular bioeconomy model might zoom in on what is grown on farms, incorporating a mix of native species like Acacias, trees good for wood energy like Grevillea, fertilizer trees like Grilicidia and food crops, Njenga said.
This agroecology approach would ensure the sustenance of biodiversity, factoring in household needs for wood energy and enhancing soil fertility for instance through the nitrogen fixing tree in the process. Native trees in forests on private farms or communal lands can also be managed the same way.
The key is to offer incentives to farmers to plant and manage trees, transforming the accepted standard that profit potential is usually associated with food crops.
Farmers may not immediately understand the ecological benefits of diverse tree systems.
As for women, their ability to contribute to decision making in tree planting and their access to the wood on farms varies. Even if they have access, they typically do not have the right to prune trees, as that is generally understood to be the work of boys under the age 13 in many communities, Njenga said.
Women without boys to prune the trees in the family, hire young men, she added. “The sale of two mature trees for timber generates income enough to pay young men to prune and size the wood and women to carry it from the farm to the house. This is for firewood that will last the household for a year.”
Njenga also noted that energy access is closely linked with food security, “because if you don’t have firewood to cook food, even if you have food, you’re food insecure.”
From growing to collection to processing to cooking, the division of labor at key nodes in what happens with household wood energy must be taken into consideration.
With circular bioeconomy concepts zeroing in on developing better value chains, a charcoal value chain, or any other shifts in the way people use forests and trees that truly benefits women and supports forests will definitely be a complex task, but it is necessary, Njenga said.
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