Here’s how to improve efficiency in charcoal production and usage

A motorcyclist ferries charcoal in Solai, Nakuru County.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • This year, Treasury returned a 14 per cent VAT meaning prices will increase even further. Charcoal is here to stay.
  • James Kimwemwe, a Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) charcoal expert, who has been involved in training CPAs says the producers are encouraged to use dry wood in modern kilns.
  • The drum kiln is made from an ordinary oil drum with a short metal pipe that acts as a chimney. The chimney condenses smoke into wood vinegar which can be used as an organic pesticide and fertiliser.

In 2016, the government scrapped tax on cooking gas in a move aimed at boosting its use by households that mostly depend on charcoal for cooking.

Consequently, the price of a 13kg cylinder fell to below Sh2,000 for the first time in many years. Conservationists celebrated. Kenya was moving in the right direction in efforts to save forests.

However, this was short-lived. By 2018, prices had risen to Sh2,300, even without the value added tax.

This year, Treasury returned a 14 per cent VAT meaning prices will increase even further. Charcoal is here to stay.

The focus should be more on sustainable production and efficient use. To its credit, the government has tried - through the Charcoal Rules and Regulations (2009) - to streamline the sector.

The regulations require formation and registration of Charcoal Producers Associations (CPAs), all which must have tree nurseries for members to plant on their farms.

They should also invest in better production technology that enables them to make briquettes not just from charcoal dust but also from other materials like saw dust, wheat straws, maize cobs, coconuts and coffee husks.

This will reduce environmental degradation and improve livelihood through increased charcoal production.

James Kimwemwe, a Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) charcoal expert, who has been involved in training CPAs says the producers are encouraged to use dry wood in modern kilns.

“Wet wood uses a lot of energy and produces less charcoal. We have demonstrated to them that a bag is lost for every 500kg of wet wood.”

Producers are also urged to stop using traditional earth kilns, which convert up to 15 per cent of the original wood weight into charcoal.

In Narok, many get just 5 per cent, according to Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) officer Muraguri Mwai.

More charcoal than necessary

Improved earth and brick kilns and portable ones made from drums, can achieve more than 30 per cent conversion efficiency.

They are not being used because of lack of awareness and cost. The training addresses the knowledge bit while the cost element can be taken care of when producers pool together.

The drum kiln is made from an ordinary oil drum with a short metal pipe that acts as a chimney. The chimney condenses smoke into wood vinegar which can be used as an organic pesticide and fertiliser.

“It improves efficiency to 30 per cent. That means for every 100kg of wood, you get 30kg of charcoal,” says Teddy Kinyanjui, whose company, Woodlands Trust, fabricates the kilns. However, it is not ideal for commercial producers as it produces small quantities of charcoal at ago.

In Siaya, where a group of farmers have planted 240 hectares of acacia for charcoal, Kefri has helped to construct brick kilns known as Half-Orange which can produce up to 120 bags.

Some producers are unhappy that they have to pay KFS to produce charcoal from their own trees.

Nellie Oduor, director of Kefri’s National Forest Products Research Programme, says this is for their own good and that of the environment.

“We need the rules to be fully implemented to streamline the sector.”

The end use of charcoal must also be addressed. Households and nyama choma places often use more charcoal than necessary, due to stoves which have low energy conversion efficiency, some as low as 15 per cent.

Yet there are stoves whose efficiency rate is as high as 50 per cent.

tim@storylineskenya.com