Using efficient methods to manage trees is the key

Women carrying loads of firewood cross the busy highway. Firewood is the main source of cooking fuel while in urban areas it is charcoal. Woodfuel, as they are known, is a major components of the energy mix in Kenya. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Woodfuel releases carbon fumes into the air, adding to the carbon footprint and global warming. This has resulted in global climatic change, which is also being witnessed in Kenya in the form of higher temperatures, prolonged droughts and dry spells.
  • Though new to the local market, ethanol has gained wide use in Mozambique because it is clean and efficient, comparable to LPG. CleanStar Ventures has conducted market research primarily in urban households that confirms the convenience and safety of ethanol.
  • The Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), and ICRAF, among others, are working with farmers on managing trees for woodfuel. They promote the harvesting of mature stems, growing of acacia trees for charcoal and managing trees in drylands.

In most rural areas, firewood is the main source of cooking fuel while in urban areas it is charcoal. Woodfuel, as they are known, is a major components of the energy mix in Kenya. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of urban households use charcoal while more than 90 per cent of rural households use firewood for cooking and heating (Ministry of Energy, 2002).

And this dependence on woodfuel is likely to continue since demand is projected to rise in step with the increasing population and urbanisation.

Interestingly, experts are divided regarding how, and whether, it should be used. Some call for the abandonment of these traditional fuel sources while others say it is the way they are produced that should be improved.

Despite the availability of more modern  energy sources, woodfuel is still used even by those who can afford other types of fuel. That is why the Partnerships on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) recently brought together a panel of energy experts drawn from the government, the private sector and non-governmental organisations to discuss the future of woodfuel, not just in Kenya, but in developing countries around the world. While some people can afford an energy mix and boast electric kettles, gas cookers, toasters, and other electric appliances, 90 per cent of the population, especially rural households, lack alternative energy sources and rely heavily on woodfuel.

The disadvantage of using woodfuel is that it leads to deforestation and land degradation, noted Mr Edward Hewitt, the director and global lands strategist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Woodfuel releases carbon fumes into the air, adding to the carbon footprint and global warming. This has resulted in global climatic change, which is also being witnessed in Kenya in the form of higher temperatures, prolonged droughts and dry spells.

Yet both charcoal and firewood are renewable energy resources if harvested in a sustainable manner. “For example, through pruning tree branches for firewood and using mature stems while leaving others to grow in the arid and semi-arid lands for charcoal production,” said Dr Mary Njenga a bioenergy scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (Icraf)

The charcoal business, which is legal, provides a livelihood  for 2.5 million Kenyans directly.

“The charcoal business is worth more than Sh32 billion annually, nearly comparable to the booming tea industry, which is Sh36 billion a year,” said Dr Njenga.

Woodfuel releases carbon fumes into the air, adding to the carbon footprint and global warming. This has resulted in global climatic change, which is also being witnessed in Kenya in the form of higher temperatures, prolonged droughts and dry spells. PHOTO | FILE

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

“Woodfuel cannot be completely done away with as cooks around the world have developed dishes they  cook and methods of using it  for aesthetic and cultural reasons,” said Dr Ruth Mendum, a researcher with the Gender, Agriculture, Energy and Environment Initiative (GAEEI) at Penn State University in the US. “Rather than tell people to abandon their favourite foods, we need to reduce  the health risks and make woodfuel sustainable.”

The demand for charcoal and firewood currently outstrips supply, but this demand is not met by the so-called clean or safer alternatives.

“The future of firewood and charcoal fuels is, therefore, expected to be big in the economy,” said Mr Teddy Kinyanjui, the sustainability director, Cookswell Jikos. 

 For instance, woodfuel is still a major source of energy in light industries, where it is used mainly for steam boilers.

Many Kenyans use firewood and charcoal because they are cheap and readily available, and are sometimes a by-product of agricultural activity.

“To open up areas for farming, one must clear any existing trees,” noted Mr Kinyanjui. However, as forests and farmlands diminish, unsustainable woodfuel harvesting continues to have negative effects on the environment.

Since energy poverty does not allow most rural people to access and afford modern cooking fuel such as  liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), they bear the brunt of over-reliance on woodfuel. “They are affected by preventable diseases and food insecurity because of climatic change,” noted Ms Manyara.

To reduce the harmful  effects of overusing firewood and charcoal, there is a need to empower women socially, economically and to free them from the burden of looking for firewood. If this is done, they can dedicate that time to leisure, pursue education and economic activities.

That is why energy choices are becoming increasingly important. As lifestyles change, people want to decide how they cook. And as energy choices increase, the primary focus should be on enhancing the technical capacity and skills of women to turn their activities in charcoal, firewood and efficient woodfuel stoves into vibrant economic enterprises, said Dr Njenga.

There is a difference between where woodfuel is heading as a primary fuel, and where it is heading as an industrial fuel, said Ms Manyara.

At the household level, the key issues to consider are women’s and children’s health. Indeed, World Health Organisation studies show that one hour of using firewood has the same health impacts as smoking a packet of cigarettes.

“To eliminate the burden of disease, the country’s energy and petroleum policy, which is still in the works, should have strategies that eliminate biomass fuels and replaces them with LPG, biogas, and modern sources,” said Ms Manyara.

Studies have shown that, when used for cooking and heating, LPG reduces carbon emissions by 50 per cent. “LPG can be used to empower women at the grassroots to eradicate energy poverty and preventable diseases and help Kenya attain Sustainable Development Goal number seven,” said Ms Manyara. Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) calls on governments to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

ENERGY MIX

New ways are being adopted for sourcing firewood and wood for making  charcoal. For instance, trees grown for timber can be pruned and the branches used as woodfuel. PHOTO | FILE

There is a need to disabuse the public of the perception that LPG is an urban, expensive  fuel.. “This is false as refills are becoming increasingly cheaper. Cooking gas is now for low-income earners as it is dispensable in smaller quantities,” she added.

A more recent alternative available locally is ethanol, a a by-product of sugar production. Ethanol cooking stoves are now available in retail stores in urban towns in Kenya at approximately Sh4,500, for a two-burner cooker.

“The fuel is packaged in bottles, and a household can use three to four litres a week, if used as the main fuel,” said Mr Sagun Saxena – the chief technology officer at CleanStar Ventures.

Though new to the local market, ethanol has gained wide use in Mozambique because it is clean and efficient, comparable to LPG. CleanStar Ventures has conducted market research primarily in urban households that confirms the convenience and safety of ethanol. “It is easy to light and turn off the flame,” says Saxena. Ethanol retails in Nairobi at between Sh90 and Sh100 per litre, which is roughly comparable to charcoal, though slightly higher than LPG.

Notably, new ways are being adopted for sourcing firewood and wood for making  charcoal. For instance, trees grown for timber can be pruned and the branches used as woodfuel. “This is happening in Embu where about 40 per cent of the households exclusively source firewood from trees on their farms, which they prune periodically,” says Dr Njenga.

If applied on a wider scale, this will make woodfuel sustainable, especially in impoverished areas such as Turkana, where women and youth make a living from it.  In Sweden, for example, biomass energy contributes a lot to the energy mix despite  trees taking almost 100 years to mature. They prune the big branches for firewood and to produce charcoal.

However, rampant corruption in the value chain needs to be addressed. “This will make charcoal sustainable as an energy source and in the creation of employment,” said Mr Githinji.

Kenya, and indeed, Africa, can learn from India, which has been helping low-income households  convert to LPG since May 2016. Dubbed Ujjwala, the scheme aims to provide 50 million free LPG connections to women from low-income households by 2019. To sustain it, the government subsidises LPG.

NEW STRATEGIES

Notably, the government, in its National Energy and Petroleum Policy 2016, outlines policies and strategies to make woodfuel sustainable. The Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri), and ICRAF, among others, are working with farmers on managing trees for woodfuel. They promote the harvesting of mature stems, growing of acacia trees for charcoal and managing trees in drylands, said Dr Njenga.

Research indicates that sustainable charcoal production, especially the use of efficient kilns for carbonisation, can improve yield efficiency from 10 per cent to 35 per cent and reduce smoke emissions; it will also save trees and reduce land degradation.  Currently, it takes 10 tonnes of wood to produce one tonne of charcoal using traditional kilns.

Even in dry areas, trees can be grown, managed and harvested sustainably. This, Dr Njenga argues, can be made  policy at  the county level,  such that counties can use integrated development plans to address energy issues.

Are there clean sources of energy?

“Every energy source has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing is to look at its contribution to health and its sustainability,” says Dr Mendum.

Besides, most people would easily accept an energy source that is  familiar and takes care of their needs. “So when designing alternative choices, it is important to understand their logic and to respect it,” she suggests.

*****

In numbers 

80%

Proportion of urban households that use charcoal 

90%

Proportion of rural households that use firewood. 

50%

Proportion  by which LPG reduces carbon emissions when used for cooking and heating 

35%

Proportion by which improved kilns can reduce carbon emissions, from 10 per cent

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