Kenyan charcoal sector finally gets the attention it has long deserved


Transporting charcoal to the market. Private enterprises have already begun commercial charcoal production on a large scale. File

Kenya’s Sh30 billion charcoal industry is finally getting the attention it deserves, after decades of being overlooked by authorities.

The industry employs more than 200,000 people in production alone, contributes more than Sh5 billion in taxes, and meets the energy needs of 80 per cent of urban households and 34 per cent of rural households.

Charcoal also saves the country billions in foreign exchange which would have otherwise been used to import fuel to meet domestic needs.

Analysts’ forecasts indicate that charcoal will continue to play this major role well into the foreseeable future.

But despite this significant contribution, charcoal production has since independence been ignored by successive governments and has been kept out of the formal economy.

This has prevented development of the industry, leading it to acquire a negative image due to its role in deforestation and the clandestine manner in which it is transported to the market to escape detection by security officers.

The current situation in charcoal production is unsustainable, and if allowed to continue may lead to complete decimation of Kenya’s already depleted forests and woodlands.

There has been no deliberate investment made in growing trees to meet rising demand for the energy source. Instead semi-arid rangelands and government forests have borne the brunt of unsustainable charcoal burning leading to severe deforestation.

Restrictions and bans

Restrictions and bans on production and transportation have in the past not helped in curtailing the destructive nature of charcoal production.

As long as a market for the energy source exists, the environment will continue to suffer and authorities will still have difficulties in controlling its production.

Nairobi alone consumes 5,000 trees daily in terms of charcoal, more than the national average of trees planted per day, notes a source from the African Conservation Center.

“Whether we want to or not, we cannot do away with charcoal since about 70 to 80 per cent of Kenyans depend on it and wood as a source of energy,” said Mr David Mbugua, the Kenya Forest Service director, in an earlier interview with Business Daily. This has forced the country’s forest watchdog to adopt a new approach which hopes to turn charcoal production into a sustainable large scale industry.

The new plan aims at encouraging commercial and sustainable harvesting of trees on rangelands and government forests for charcoal production.

It also seeks to reign in forest destruction by keeping tabs on commercial charcoal production in the country, instilling professional management inproduction and reducing wastage.

Attract investment

This is expected to attract more private sector investments into the industry, boosting its growth and increasing its contribution to the economy.

To buttress the new plan, last year the government gazetted charcoal regulations under the Forest Act of 2005, the first since independence.

The new regulations, which govern licensing of commercial charcoal production, transportation, and trade are now in the initial stages of implementation.

To reduce licensing bureaucracy, the new regulations state that all charcoal producers should be members of registered associations.

Through the associations, producers are expected to institute self regulatory codes of practice and to create reforestation and conservation plans that will ensure sustainable production of charcoal by association members in the areas they operate.

“For one to get a license, one has to have a management plan and needs to show us how and where he will implement it,” said Mr John Wachihi, the head of Central Highlands Conservation at the Kenya Forest Service.

To transport charcoal, one needs to have a movement permit and a certificate of origin showing where the charcoal was sourced with a signature of the owner. The certificate of origin, which indicates where charcoal came from, is expected to help keep tabs on production areas and quantities produced.

Wholesalers and retailers are also expected to have copies of certificates of origin and movement permits for the charcoal they sell. The new regulations also open an avenue for exporters who would like to sell Kenyan charcoal to other countries. Countries like Sudan have restricted export of high quality charcoal which is limited to 5,000 tonnes annually.

Private enterprises have already begun commercial charcoal production on a large scale.

“Kakuzi are growing trees for the purpose of charcoal production,” said Mr Wachihi. The forest service hopes to encourage ranchers to carry out large scale charcoal production.

Clearing vegetation

“When some of these ranchers are clearing vegetation for pasture or farming, they can be able to produce charcoal for commercial use,” said Mr Wachihi. Most investors are discouraged by the long time it takes for trees to mature before they are harvested for charcoal production.

However, research shows that trees can be harvested as early as three years after planting for charcoal production. With proper planning and rotation, even longer durations can be accommodated. Fast growing trees that are economical with water, such as Leutena, Sestania, and Acacia, are being promoted as suitable for charcoal burning.

But for production to become a viable option for most investors, the wasteful carbonisation method currently used in producing charcoal must be improved on.

The most common method used in carbonisation is the earth mound kiln, where wood is stacked on the ground and covered with soil to restrict the supply of air during carbonisation.

The method, which has been present since time immemorial, is considered wasteful and obsolete.

More than 85 per cent of wood is lost is the process, achieving efficiency of below 15 per cent. New methods for charcoal production such as retort kilns are said to achieve efficiencies of 35 per cent to 45 per cent and can achieve effective carbonisation in only 10 hours. This technology, which is used in Europe to manufacture charcoal on an industrial scale, is however not readily available in Kenya and is rarely used. According to Mr Wachihi, adoption of such new methods would drastically enhance forest growth. But even as efforts to formalise the charcoal industry gain momentum, growth of other energy forms is slowly eroding charcoal’s hold on domestic energy needs.

Increased use of LPG gas and kerosene among Kenyans has sliced a huge market off charcoal dealers’ income.

High demand

“Demand was very high back in 2005 and I used to sell 10 bags per day. Today selling four bags is difficult,” said Mr Jackson Maina, a retailer based in Nyeri town.

Most urban dwellers have turned to LPG and kerosene and only use charcoal when cooking specific types of food which take long on the stove, Mr Maina said. The recent hike in the price of paraffin only offered a temporary reprieve for sellers noted the dealer.

The price of charcoal has also markedly risen since 2005 when a single bag cost around Sh500, to the current Sh950. The briquetting technique, where charcoal dust and materials like sawdust and soil are used to make charcoal, has also increased.

But as Mr Maina notes, this has not had any significant effect on charcoal production. Critics, however, fault the forest department’s will to implement the new regulations — noting that even with the mandate to protect forests, destruction has gone on right under their noses.

The critics say that lack of capacity by the relevant authorities, lack of proper follow up, and collusion with charcoal burners may prevent achievement of the projected goals. If successful, the economic gains made from professional charcoal burning would augment environmental benefits.