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IF you drive from rural central Kenya to the capital Nairobi, you will see all the familiar sights of country roads – little market towns, roadside vendors and the now-ubiquitous motorcycle taxi. But there’s also a curious sight, if you look closely.
Charcoal is one of the most common items being sold by the roadside, but the sacks of charcoal are mostly stacked on the side of the road coming into the city, not the side going out into the countryside.
It suggests that the demand for charcoal is much higher in the towns than in the rural areas, but even that isn’t the whole story.
Charcoal is a popular fuel choice as it offers higher energy content per weight than wood, making it easier to transport, store and distribute.
Kerosene use is common in urban parts of Nigeria (where it is supported by subsidies), as well as in South Africa and Kenya. While liquefied petroleum gas (LPG/ ‘cooking gas’) use is less common in Nigeria, it is used by one-fifth of urban households in the rest of West Africa.
But charcoal demand remains high even in wealthier households in urban Africa. The reason is that as long as solid biomass fuels like charcoal or firewood remain cheap or “free” relative to alternatives, then increasing incomes may not be a critical trigger for households to switch to modern cooking fuels.
In other words, when a household has a little extra money, they will first switch to buying more meat, buying a mobile phone, or paying school fees for the children.
FOOD OVER FUEL
The choice of household fuel is not as sensitive to increasing income. People are happy to continue cooking using charcoal – even when they can afford not to – and direct their additional funds into eating better, for example.
The Africa Energy Outlook report (pdf) from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that firewood and charcoal demand exceeds that of all other forms of energy in Africa combined, a picture that changes only gradually even as incomes rise.
Four out of five people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on the traditional use of solid biomass, mainly fuelwood, for cooking. In 2012, charcoal production in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to have amounted to 36 million tonnes, with an estimated market value of $11 billion.
And the charcoal industry is an important employer in Africa – it is labour intensive, compared to other energy sub-sectors like oil and gas which are capital intensive.
The charcoal industry creates jobs for wood producers, charcoal producers, transporters and vendors. In Rwanda, in 2007, the value of transactions at fuelwood and charcoal markets was estimated to be $122 million, amounting to 5% of GDP, 50% of these revenues stayed in the rural areas.
But even for its relatively “cheap” cost, the market price of charcoal does not reflect its real environmental cost. Because the charcoal market is often informal and unregulated, and the raw material is “free”, the cost of reforestation is not factored in the market price. In fact, charcoal produced in a more sustainable way is often priced out of the market, the IEA report says.
The lack of regulation in the industry accounts for 10-20% of deforestation around urban areas in East Africa, where charcoal demand is high.
To make things worse, the conversion of fuelwood to charcoal is highly inefficient in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of it is produced using traditional earth-mound kilns that have a conversion efficiency of 8% to 12%, compared to industrial kilns, which have an efficiency of above 25%.
In other words, it takes 100kg of wood to produce just 8-12kg of charcoal.
How can African governments encourage fuel switching? Policies and programmes play a major role in changing the picture, for example, through provision of finance to cover the upfront investment costs associated with more efficient cookstoves, the report says.