Banning charcoal isn’t the way to go. Kenya should make it
6 days ago, 09:25
The Kenyan government has clamped down on the production of charcoal, which it blames for environmental damage.
A three-month ban on trading is in force in a number of counties.
The Conversation Africa’s Moina Spooner spoke to Mary Njenga about the crackdown.
Why has the government clamped down on charcoal trading?
The government is concerned that charcoal production is leading to the destruction of Kenya’s environment.
Charcoal is made when wood is burned in a low oxygen environment and burns off compounds like water, a process that can take days. Some tree species, like Acacias, are preferred as their charcoal burns longer. But once these preferred tree species are all used up, producers will fell any tree. When trees are cut down, and the land is left bare, rain water runs off the surface eroding fertile topsoil. Groundwater supplies are also affected because tree or vegetation cover ensures water seeps into underground wells.
That said, there are some big misconceptions about the charcoal sector and its role in environmental damage. The production and use of charcoal is not a bad thing in itself. Trees are a form of renewable energy. Secondly, charcoal receives most of the blame for the loss of trees, but other factors – like the clearing of land for agriculture or pasture – are also to blame.
Kenya has imposed a charcoal ban before. The bans are largely based on the assumption that charcoal is acquired from government land. But most charcoal in Kenya is sourced from privately owned and managed land. This makes the bans ineffectual.
How is the ban being enforced and is it sustainable?
The measures include a ban on production and restrictions on transportation and trading. These are unlikely to resolve the problem and may create new ones. It’s important to get the approach to charcoal right because so many producers and users rely on it.
Wood energy has been used for millenia. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 62% of global charcoal production. In Kenya, the charcoal sector is worth about USD$427 million each year – almost the same size as the country’s tea sector. And about 80% of urban households depend on it for cooking.
Most people who produce charcoal live in drylands and do it as a source of income. Drylands make up over 80% of the land in Kenya. In some of these areas, about 50% of the households depend on charcoal as their main source of income.
The important issue is that, despite the high dependency on charcoal, existing regulations for a sustainable charcoal sector production are not being applied in a sustainable manner. The majority of producers don’t have tree replanting schemes. They also use wet wood in earth mould kilns to convert wood to charcoal. This produces a low conversion of wood to charcoal, meaning wood is wasted, land is degraded and air polluted.
Who is most affected by the crackdown?
The ban mostly affects the users – who are middle and low-income households, mostly in urban centres.
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