CNN CNN explores the sustainable future of Kenya’s charcoal industry

CNN International discovers the ways in which companies in Kenya are finding sustainable ways of solving issues such as deforestation and pollution within the charcoal industry.

The survival of Kenya’s ecosystem is currently threatened by invasive mesquite trees which continue to spread through the country’s forests. However, the presence of these trees has provided a unique opportunity for Tinder Eco Fuels to reduce the negative ecological impact of fast-spreading mesquite trees and reduce deforestation of native trees, by cutting down mesquite trees in affected areas and burning the felled trees to create charcoal.

The company’s co-founder Fiona Mwaura explains: “[Mesquite trees] took over the natural ecology. The farmlands, the Redlands, the river banks… they ruined and pushed out all the natural vegetation in all areas that it was introduced. One of our main purposes, as we slow down deforestation is to keep the growth of mesquite down… the only way to actually keep it from spreading is through utilization.”

Mwaura outlines why charcoal is an essential product for many Kenyans: “Charcoal is one of the oldest industries in the world, including in Kenya. Most charcoal in Kenya is consumed in urban areas – about 80 per cent of charcoal produced is trucked to urban centres. Families who live in urban areas, especially families who live in slum dwellings, do not have access to firewood and so the next cheapest option is charcoal.”

As global oil prices continue to rise, millions of people across the African continent rely on charcoal to cook food and generate heat. However, the high demand for charcoal is generating further problems for Kenya.

Peter Scott, CEO and founder of Burn Manufacturing, summarises these issues: “We are heading towards an ecologic and economic catastrophe. The problem with charcoal is that it takes about ten tonnes of wood to produce one tonne of charcoal. When people turn that wood into charcoal, it produces a lot of fine particles and black carbon that then have an impact on climate and it’s consuming a lot of forests.”

Scott believes the stoves manufactured by his company provide the solution: “We are really focused on getting people super fuel efficient charcoal stoves which use 60 to 70 per cent less fuel, which has a huge impact on saving forests.”

The Kenyan government are also focused on forest conservation, which is why they recently implemented a ban on logging to crack down on all charcoal trading. Mwaura describes how the ban had huge consequences for those in the industry: “A lot of companies that strive to work sustainably in the forest were punished. A lot of farmers are being punished as well because that was their daily bread and now they don’t have it any more.”

Since charcoal production is such a profitable industry in Kenya, it is easy to assume that a ban would affect the country’s economy. However, Mwaura explains that this is not the case: “The money is being made, but none of it is going to the government because the major players are still informal.”

This means that local citizens (rather than formal businesses) are the main charcoal producers in Kenya. This is because it’s cheaper to produce charcoal informally without having to pay taxes than it is to create an official business.

Scott determines that such informal businesses need to come to an end and that a focus on sustainability is key: “[The charcoal industry] needs to be formalised and it needs to be taxed sensibly. We have to create a sustainable supply and so that’s why groups like Tinder Eco Fuels or Soul Coal are doing a great job in showing that you really can produce a sustainable supply of coal.”

As charcoal consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to reach 45 million tonnes by 2030, those in the industry in Kenya are hoping that the government will do something to help the sector realise a sustainable future. Mwaura explains: “What we hope for the government to achieve is actually to revise some of the policies which [are] still archaic and halt this country from growing. Not only the charcoal industry, but the logging and timber industry as well.”

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