FAO Regional Office for Africa

Everyone needs energy to cook food for themselves and their families and to fend off the cold. But in Africa, many millions of people only have access to this by using the natural environment - forests amd woodlands- in the form of firewood and charcoal, rather than being able to access other renewable and affordable energy sources like solar and wind generated power. The increased demand for charcoal comes from the urban areas. Woodfuel production and consumption presents a serious sustainability issue and with lack of alternative energy sources, impedes progress towards SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy. But attempts to regulate or even criminalise its production and trade need to be guided by a deep understanding of complex economic, social, historical and gender issues or livelihoods can be destroyed.

Community producer groups are coming to the fore in showing that there is a sustainable way forward – and it is important to make sure their voices are heard and are listened to. That was a key aim of a conference co-organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which has just ended in Kumasi, Ghana. In some rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa as many as 60 percent of people are employed in charcoal production with few alternative employment options.

Grassroots groups give voices to forest users

“Producers highlighted the misconception that woodfuel use always leads to environmental degradation,” said FAO Senior Forestry Officer and one of the event organizers, Nora Berrahmouni. “They explained that by coming together as cooperatives, woodfuel producers and traders have been able to train in more sustainable wood extraction - cutting a branch rather than the entire tree to allow for regrowth - or by using improved charcoal kilns.”

Local cooperatives have also set up tree nurseries for native species and educated themselves about managing invasive ones, including using invasive trees to meet some of the demand for woodfuel. The practice of using mixed cropping on small farms was also highlighted, as well as mixing woodfuel with coconut and other shells to reduce the amount of wood used, and lift the pressure from the forests.

Zambian producers explained how they were encouraged to collaborate by the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) and formed the Zambia National Forest Commodities Association (ZNFCA).  Because the producers are organized, they can collectively manage their tree resources and in the supermarket their certified sustainable charcoal is clearly recognisable to customers by its ‘green’ label.

Nkumbwa Mark Kahyata is the Vice Chairperson of the Choma Charcoal Association, where he and his wife Charity Mufwimpizi have produced charcoal for the last decade in the Masuku area. When they saw that the supply of trees was reducing rapidly, they decided to stop cutting and educated themselves in taking only selected branches rather than whole trees. They also now use an improved kiln which makes the production of charcoal more sustainable.

‘’Belonging to the Association is a great benefit because it has reduced the stigma of being charcoal producers and we are now recognized by our traditional leaders,” he said. The producers’ group Nkumbwa and Charity belong to has also set up its own nursery with thriving seedlings for restoring the forest.

FFF is active in 12 countries in Africa and other regions and is a partnership between FAO, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and AgriCord.

A complex challenge with many elements to bring together and resolve

Sustainability is a critical challenge when two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s population relies on woodfuel for cooking and the population is both rising and urbanizing rapidly. Africa is thought to have 1.1 billion people, with projections that it could rise to 2.7 billion people by 2060, many of them – whether in cities or rural areas, will continue to need woodfuel. A traditional leader, who spoke passionately at the recent conference in Ghana, explained other communities come onto his community’s lands because they have cut down so many of their trees and have been reprimanded. But, as he explained, my people need woodfuel as well.

The search for sustainability, together

The underlying idea of the conference was to pay attention to these and other voices by bringing together people with the widest range possible of different backgrounds and perspectives - woodfuel producers and traders, scientists and academics, the private sector, policy makers, civil society, government departments from different sectors - to share their knowledge and ideas around what is a difficult and complex area. Having all stakeholders involved in a challenging area such as this is crucial, especially when the issues are so complex and range from forestry issues to livelihoods one, to health, to energy security, to greenhouse gas emissions, to nutrition, to gender roles, to health, to justice, peace and security.

There are solutions

Solutions exist - as shown by researchers, policy makers and practitioners at the conference - but these need to be brought together to be effective. They range from improving forest management and restoration practices to improving efficiency in charcoal production, improving traceability across the whole value chain, value addition in terms of quality and also ensuring governance systems, and equitable benefits sharing across everyone involved in the value chain.

A combined mix of sustainable energy sources is needed, and must be supported by capacity development programmes and national comprehensive energy, forestry and trade policies and investments where sustainable woodfuel production and consumption can play a role with increased access to affordable sources of renewable energy and diversified livelihoods. Capacity development needs to be institutionalized.  It is only by reducing the pressure on the forest, and on people depending on them, that the sustainability equation can be solved.  Achieving sustainability in the woodfuel value chains means achieving a better environment, thriving livelihoods and people’s health.

Partnership is essential

The conference - Sustainable Woodfuel Value Chains in Africa: Governance, Social, Economic and Ecological Dimensions – was organized by FAO, the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), University of Copenhagen, the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO), African Forest Policies&Politics (AFORPOLIS), and Tropenbos Ghana. The conference was supported by the Government of Ghana, through the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, the Ghana Forestry Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ghana Energy Commission.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of FAO Regional Office for Africa.

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