Making Wood Fuels Sustainable
We're working with partners to tackle the primary cause of Africa's deforestation.
Faith stirs a pot of ugali (maize meal) through squinted, watering eyes. With the other hand, she throws a log on to the homemade wood-burning stove that cooks it. In her small mud hut, the only ventilation comes from the front door and a gap between the walls and the corrugated iron roof. It doesn’t take long for the room to fill with smoke.
Faith has had a permanent cough for so long now she’s become used to it. It gets worse when she does strenuous activities, such as chopping and carrying wood from the forest, which she has to do at least twice a week. She’s not alone in her suffering.
In fact, smoke inhalation from wood burning stoves is the second-largest cause of premature deaths in Africa behind HIV/AIDS. Not only that, but more than 50 percent of the continent’s forest degradation is a result of fuel demand.
Wood fuel is one of Africa’s most significant environmental and health threats, but the level of public discourse on the issue doesn’t often reflect the size of the challenge.
To try and tackle this, The Nature Conservancy launched the Sustainable Wood Fuels Program in 2017, led by Ed Hewitt in Nairobi. In typical TNC style, we’re aiming high — drawing out a roadmap for the future of Africa’s sustainable wood fuel consumption that includes planting billions of new trees and supporting innovative ways to convert wood into energy more efficiently.
In this Q&A, Ed talks through current challenges, the program’s goals, and the exciting new partnerships that will help achieve them.
nature.org: What is wood fuel and what are the impacts of its use on the environment?
Ed Hewitt: Wood fuel is mainly firewood and charcoal, and it accounts for more than 80 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s primary energy. Eighty percent of urban households in Sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal for cooking, and more than 90 percent of rural households use firewood. That’s a lot of people who depend on trees!
nature.org: Apart from the depletion of their forests, are there other negative impacts on users?
Ed: Yes. About half a million people die in Africa every year from smoke inhalation — often a direct result of cooking with wood fuels in poorly ventilated huts or houses. It is also impacting the economy. Around 8 million people across the continent gain employment from the charcoal value chain. But this is largely an informal sector, so cumulatively governments miss out on around $2 billion annually in ‘avoided’ taxes.
nature.org: So why are we focusing on making wood fuels more sustainable, and not on green alternatives?
Ed: As much as we may want alternatives to be scaled much more quickly, all the forecasts point to wood fuels still being the dominant source of energy in Sub-Saharan Africa for the next 30 years — in fact, charcoal demand is still growing. We need to address this issue head on.
nature.org: Is there any way wood fuel can be sustainable?
Ed: We believe that harvesting wood fuel can be significantly less destructive when combined with new tree planting and efficient energy conversion. Improved cookstoves, for example, reduce the amount of wood needed to cook and drastically reduce the health challenges. And if we bring this sector into the formal economy, those 8 million people employed along the charcoal value chain would be earning a legal and regulated source of income. This is a $10 billion market that would represent a larger formal market for the region than tea, one of its primary exports.
We acknowledge that sustainable wood fuel is not the ultimate long-term solution for Africa’s energy needs, but making it more sustainable in the meantime is such an important bridge that we just can’t ignore it. That’s why The Nature Conservancy has launched the Sustainable Wood Fuels Program.
nature.org: What is the Sustainable Wood Fuels Program?
Ed: Our Sustainable Wood Fuels Program has three core components: the first is to plant more trees, the second is to convert wood into energy more efficiently, and the third is to support policies and regulations that ensure sustainable charcoal can compete on a level playing field with unsustainable charcoal.
nature.org: How are we going to plant more trees, and aren’t there already lots of organizations doing this in Africa?
Ed: Yes there are — and our work supports these other initiatives. We’re scoping out an innovative financing mechanism that will help tree growers plant billions of new trees — in the right places — across the continent. It’s called the Tree Fund. The continent has pledged to bring 100 million hectares of land into restoration by 2030 through the ‘AFR100’ initiative, so we are looking to bring in new tools to rapidly increase scale.
nature.org: How will the Tree Fund work?
Ed: If a viable idea, the Tree Fund will act as an impact investment vehicle, purposefully designed to meet the specific needs of tree growers in Africa. We want to unlock the potential of smallholder farmers here, many of whom seek additional sources of income and would benefit from having trees on their land. We are very keen to promote an integrated approach to deriving value from trees, which means prioritizing the higher value products they can deliver, like timber for construction or furniture, or ecosystem services like water filtration. The ‘leftovers’ from these products — which can be as much as 30 to 40 percent of the total tree mass — can then form the wood fuel supply.
We’re developing the product, economics, and structure for the Tree Fund this year and then will be reaching out to a range of investors — both public and private. The goal is for them to see a return on their investment — this is crucial to the model — if they buy in to the long-term, high-impact investment we will be offering.
nature.org: The second component of the Sustainable Wood Fuels Program is converting wood into energy more efficiently. How does this work?
Ed: We are primarily focusing on how to produce charcoal more efficiently, as charcoal is the main urban cooking fuel and way more destructive to forests than firewood. Traditional charcoal practices normally involve cutting whole trees, whereas firewood normally involves taking only branches and collecting deadwood. You need to harvest 10 tons of wood to produce 1 ton of charcoal using a traditional earth kiln. Improved kilns can double or triple this conversion efficiency, while using the latest cookstove technology can reduce the amount of charcoal required to cook one meal by 50 percent. Combine these and you can quite easily increase the energy efficiency of charcoal by a factor of eight, which means only cutting one tree instead of eight to fuel a household for a week!
nature.org: Is this already happening?
Ed: Yes! We already have sustainable charcoal demonstration kilns up and running with a partner in coastal Kenya. They are a very innovative ‘microforestry’ social enterprise, and we’re excited to work with them. We are also currently pulling together a partnership to demonstrate bamboo charcoal just north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
Bamboo — which is technically a woody grass, not a tree — is the fastest growing biomass on the planet, and many species are indigenous to East Africa. Managed carefully, it can both restore degraded land as well as supply a renewable source of energy. But we need to do lots of tests first to make sure it works and doesn’t have any unforeseen consequences.
nature.org: How are you supporting policy and regulatory reform in Kenya?
Ed: For any of this to work, it’s crucial that the right policy and regulatory environment is in place. Currently wood fuel is drastically underpriced as it does not represent the true production, labor, or social costs associated with producing it. We are currently documenting what policies are in place in Kenya and analyzing what needs to be improved in order to ensure that sustainable wood fuel has a chance of competing with the informal sector. From what we are seeing in Kenya at least, good policy is written on paper – but enforcement is a real challenge.
nature.org: Who are you partnering with?
Ed: To date we have received financial and technical support from the Shell Foundation for this project. We have also recently raised further grants to pilot and develop these concepts from DFID’s Partnership for Forests (P4F) program, Lennox Foundation, Grantham Foundation, and Blue Haven. We are also looking to bring in a range of finance and forestry experts to our partnership. These partnerships are currently under negotiation and will be announced in the future.
If the Kenya-based trial of the Sustainable Wood Fuels Program works, the next phase will be to reach out to our existing partners across the continent and take this to scale, using lessons learned along the way.
As Africa’s population, industry, and infrastructure continue to grow, ensuring communities have the knowledge and tools to balance the well-being of their families with sustainable livelihoods and abundant natural resources will become increasingly critical.
If we can empower women like Faith to plant trees in the corners of their farms and use wood fuel more efficiently, we can enable local people to tackle one of Africa’s biggest health and environmental challenges in simple, meaningful ways.