25 Jan 2016

A burning issue: woodfuel, public health, land degradation and conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Woodfuel is a multi-billion dollar business in Sub-Saharan Africa  © A. Schenk
Woodfuel is a multi-billion dollar business in Sub-Saharan Africa © A. Schenk
By Albert Schenk

Wood energy fuelling the future

Wood is a key source of energy that has been used for millennia for cooking, boiling water, lighting and heating. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 90% of the population relies on woodfuel, i.e. firewood and charcoal, as a primary source of domestic energy, both in rural as well as in urban areas. Woodfuel in Africa is a multi-billion business worth more than US$11 billion and is therefore a natural resource of major significance. Both population growth and urbanisation push up demand for this vital commodity; the socio-economic, health and environmental challenges associated with it also rise accordingly.

Those challenges include:

  • widespread deforestation and land degradation impacting birds and other biodiversity;
  • inefficient and wasteful charcoal conversion technologies further exacerbating the scale of the problem;
  • inefficient cooking systems causing indoor air pollution and deaths;
  • an immense workload for women and children in sourcing firewood, affecting physical health, development and productivity.

Miombo woodland degradation in Malawi as a result of unsustainable charcoal practices © A. Schenk



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So, concerns about woodfuel are very real. At the same time it is beyond dispute that woodfuel is going to stay as a main source of energy for a large part of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa for many more decades to come. However, woodfuel is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. On the contrary, woodfuel can be the most sustainable source of energy for many if regulated, managed and used well.

In November 2015, Dr. Mary Njenga, a scientist in bioenergy from the World Agroforestry Centre, held a presentation on the subject at the BirdLife Africa Secretariat in Nairobi.  In addition to outlining the issues related to the use of woodfuel, the main focus of discussion concerned viable local solutions. Those include tree planting, agroforestry, improved charcoal kilns, improved cookstoves, and the production of fuel briquettes from local waste. It is in the promotion and implementation of those local solutions that the Africa Partnership and other civil society organisations, can play a particularly important role in making woodfuel sustainable; local solutions and community empowerment are among the most effective means to start making that difference today.

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