Poor charcoal production techniques fuel tree cutting in Kenya

Traditional earth kilns inefficient
Prosopis charcoal in Kibera, Nairobi – Kenya. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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The use of inefficient charcoal production methods is accelerating tree cutting in Kenya by charcoal producers, as it remains a key energy source in the country.

A new study conducted by scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), and partner organizations shows that charcoal producers have little or no support to engage in the replanting of trees, which could lead to a lower rate of deforestation in the already tree-scarce areas where most charcoal is produced.

“Charcoal production practices and technologies are still very traditional and wasteful; there is a lot of unnecessary tree cutting and most landowners and charcoal producers are not involved in tree planting, or any tree management practices that would promote tree regeneration and growth,” according to the authors.

The producers use traditional, inefficient earth kilns to make the charcoal, which the scientists say wastes wood, requiring more trees to be cut to meet the increasing demand for charcoal in Kenya where other cooking energy alternatives remain out of reach from many.

The producers also said they rarely undertake wood pre-drying, which would improve the efficiency of their production process.

Each kiln was found to yield about six bags per run, a volume that is achieved by a 10 to 20 percent efficiency, with up to 80 percent of all the wood   going to waste in the manufacturing process.

In 2000, it was estimated that about 1.6 million tonnes of charcoal were being consumed in the country annually, but the figure had grown to 2.5 million tonnes by 2013. Thus, with a 10 to 20 percent efficiency from the earth mound kilns, it would mean at least 25 million tonnes of wood would be required to meet this demand which is still on the rise .

The research reveals that between 40 to 75 percent of the charcoal is produced in arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) where trees are already scarce. It also found that consumer preferences had driven the producers to use specific tree species like the Acacia spp, which are fast being exhausted in areas where it was available for use.

The naturally propagating tree was rarely supported to regrow, with most landowners (up to 70 percent) saying they did not engage in any management practice that supports tree regeneration after harvesting, posing a threat to their existence.

The landowners said they lacked tree planting and management skills and that most of the indigenous trees regenerated naturally, so they saw no need to participate in supporting their regeneration.

Only four percent had received some support on tree growing activities including provision of tree seedlings, sensitization on the need to plant trees after felling and the importance of using dead/ windfall wood in charcoal production, training/ information on agroforestry, intercropping and other environmental conservation practices, marketing, and training on pruning techniques

The charcoal sub-sector remains one of the most important sources of energy in Kenya, especially in the fast-expanding urban areas with about 60 percent of consumers relying on the commodity as their primary energy source, according to the research, whose consumer study focused on Nairobi and Mombasa , Kenya’s two largest cities.

The researchers called for a shift to greener cooking solutions to tame the growing demand for charcoal and improve production technologies to reduce unnecessary tree cutting.

“Contrary to the long-standing assumptions of the energy ladder, people are falling back or stacking energy sources to manage expenditure, reliability, meal diversity and cultural preferences,” said Phosiso Sola, who led the study. “Therefore, the solution is not just transition but also reduction in the amount of charcoal consumed in the household energy-mix by use of more efficient stoves and ensuring efficient and sustainable sourcing and production of charcoal.”

The research recommends that landowners, charcoal producers, and traders should be given support to address various challenges and improve on efficiency in the value chain to retain more trees in the landscape and earn more income.

For more information on this topic, please contact Phosiso Sola at
This research was supported by the European Union
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