Trees for the future

Sustainable charcoal production in Kenya

“We use a lot of charcoal because in the villages we don’t have biogas, we don’t have the petroleum products. There is paraffin but it is expensive, so we use a lot of charcoal. We also get some income from it - it is arid here so we don’t grow food, the trees are where people make their income to cover basic needs. But now we already have a situation where the forests are disappearing and people are doing nothing except for cutting more and more wood. We are moving from semi-arid to arid and so we can’t even plant the trees to make more charcoal as they can’t survive. It feels like the situation will just get worse.”

- National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) officer in Bondo

The sustainable production and consumption of charcoal is a critical issue across Kenya, and is especially pertinent in this semi-arid region in the west of the country. Properly managed woodlands can mean that farmers earn more from producing better quality charcoal, and it also helps to slow the current trend of people moving from woodland to woodland, cutting down trees and not replanting them.

Given that most Kenyans rely on wood and charcoal for their daily cooking needs, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) implemented the Forest Act 2009 which outlines the law on producing, transporting and trading charcoal in an effort to commercialise charcoal production. Through issuing licences, KFS hope to be able to track and control charcoal production and ensure it comes from a sustainable supply, maintaining Kenya’s trees for future generations.

Using Practical Action’s participatory market system development methodology (PMSD), Practical Action Consulting held participatory workshops with members of the charcoal trade in Bondo district in 2009. This was organised as part of the Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security (PISCES) project’s work to support the development of a legal, visible and sustainable charcoal market that can enhance livelihoods and formalise the industry. Workshop participants ranged from traders and producers, to KFS staff, local council members and sustainability officers. They all felt that, although there was the new law on charcoal production, not everyone knew about it. Previously, it has been a semi-illegal practice, and corruption and hassling from local area chiefs and the police has been a barrier to the free transportation and sale of charcoal.

To help KFS promote these new laws, PISCES has produced The Kenya Charcoal Policy Handbook outlining all of the current rules and regulations. The Handbook has been disseminated to KFS offices nationwide, as well as to other stakeholders, such as John Ouma, a representative of the Charcoal Producers Association in Bondo district. He in turn has distributed copies to other Association committee members, who represent over 1,100 local farmers that rely on charcoal production for their income.

KFS are working through Producers Association’s to support farmers in the initial phases of sustainable charcoal production. This is a six year process, whereby farmers plant ½ acre of acacia trees each year. As they wait for the trees to reach maturity, they diversify their incomes via intercropping, selling tree seedlings, coppicing (taking just the branches) and bee keeping. Natalie Radull Akumu started her woodlot, and included a section for bee keeping. She is able to harvest six litres of honey every two months which she trades at 600 Ksh per litre (around £4.50).

Once mature, one tree of acacia that is about 30cm radius can give up to seven bags of charcoal. One bag can sell for 750Ksh. New seedlings are then able to be replanted in the original ½ acre so that farmers will have a continuing supply of charcoal after year six.

Alongside improving tree growing practices, adopting new techniques in the charcoal production process is also critical. Farmers in Madiany district have been using a half orange kiln, but due to using the wrong materials cracks have appeared down the sides. Rather than clubbing together to build another one, buying more casamansa (portable kiln for larger quantities of wood) and portable drum kilns (for smaller amounts) seems the preferred option as these can be moved from farm to farm. Otherwise, farmers have to carry their wood down and stay at the half orange kiln throughout the burning process which takes two to three days. The drum kilns are also a better option for women farmers as they are easier to carry and require smaller branches making the process more manageable.

James M. Omare, the Zonal Forest Manager for Bondo oversees KFS work and believes the Charcoal Handbook is a critical tool in implementing charcoal policy. As the successful work with charcoal producers and sellers continues, sensitisation of County Council staff and police is also important. After feedback from KFS and local producers, a shorter version of the Handbook translated into Kiswahili is now being produced that will be distributed nationwide to promote the new law and reach as many people as possible. PAC are also planning a radio programme on a local language radio station to discuss the laws and what they mean for local producers.

“The questions KFS asks us are hard!” Akasuis Owenje, a farmer that John Ouma works with told us, “Are you planting more trees? Is the charcoal yours? But it is reasonable, because when you cut (a tree) you have to plant to replace the one that you have cut. People who are just cutting down trees are destroying the environment.” Although it is clear that work still needs to be done to truly formalise the charcoal industry, the efforts of KFS and the PISCES project in Bondo district do seem to be paying off and providing an example that can be rolled out through KFS nationally.

PISCES is an international research consortium led by the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya. Partners are the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Edinburgh, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and Practical Action Consulting East Africa, South Asia and UK. Through action research, the project is contributing to innovation and providing new policy-relevant knowledge on bioenergy- leading to better practices and widening energy access to the rural poor in East Africa and South Asia. It is the Energy Research Programme Consortium funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).


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