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Africa's climate policies burned by firewood dependence

by Kayode Ogunbunmi and Madalitso Mwando | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 2 June 2014 09:45 GMT

A woman fries garri over a wood fire in Nigeria’s Kwara State. TRF/Kayode Ogunbunmi

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Laws to protect forests and shift to cleaner energy are undermined by poor Africans' reliance on wood for fuel

KWARA, Nigeria/HARARE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The women folk of Eye-Nkorin, a farming community of 500 people in Nigeria’s Kwara State, make a living from cooking up mashed cassava - and for this they need a huge amount of energy, supplied by firewood from nearby forests.

Piles of logs are stacked on the edge of frying pits, and women feed the wood into the fire to keep their pans searing hot. The dry, granular food they produce, known as garri, is a popular meal across Nigeria, and most of it is processed on wood-fired pits, contributing to deforestation.

Aina Odere, a 25-year-old garri maker, laughs at the suggestion the village women might use other sources of fuel to roast their cassava flour. “Some people have kerosene stoves, but they only use them if it rains and the wood is wet. Kerosene is expensive - and you cannot always get it,” she said.

Local school teacher Rafiu Ayinde is aware of alternative energy sources, but says it is too much to expect villagers – who don’t even have electric power - to use them. “We are surrounded by a forest, and it costs nothing to get firewood to cook,” he said.

Nigeria is a leading producer of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), and has the world’s seventh largest reserves of natural gas. Yet the West African country is also among the biggest users of solid fuel for cooking. According to the International Energy Agency, over 120 million Nigerians rely on firewood and charcoal for their cooking needs.

Wood, a form of biomass, remains the sole source of energy for hundreds of millions of Africans, who lack access to modern sources of power. Illegal logging also remains a lucrative business that has contributed to the rapid shrinking of Africa’s rainforests and woodlands.

African governments are struggling to combat the problem - made worse by widespread corruption – at a time when some are taking steps to receive funding under the U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme.


Experts say existing laws, regulations and policies to deter the use of wood for fuel across sub-Saharan Africa are failing to have the desired effect.

“The local and global environment is being degraded, as the demand for biomass encourages deforestation … and, to the extent that it is used unsustainably, burning biomass contributes to global warming,” said Paddy Ezeala of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. It also creates local and regional air pollution, including smog, he added.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says indoor smoke from solid fuel is one of the leading causes of avoidable deaths and ill-health worldwide. Women are most affected because they often cook for their families and spend a lot of time in smoky kitchens.

In a 2013 report, the WHO said 98,000 Nigerian women die each year from the use of firewood, with thousands more at risk of serious health problems. “After malaria and HIV/AIDS, smoke is the biggest killer of mostly women and children. This has cost poor families and institutions money that could be put to better use on education, health and nutrition,’’ the report said.

The Nigerian government has made some efforts to tackle the problems of deforestation and lack of access to alternative energy.

Last year, it adopted a “National Policy on Climate Change and Response Strategy”, aimed at making the country resilient to climate change and ready for rapid and sustainable development.

Designed to reduce Nigeria’s carbon footprint, it includes commitments to increase forest cover rehabilitate degraded land, and promote a shift to cleaner energy.

The government has also tried to replace fuel wood with kerosene, cooking gas and electricity through its National Energy Policy. Despite this, Nigeria ranks among the lowest LPG-consuming states in Africa. It uses less than 0.5 kilogrammes (kg) per capita, compared with 1.9kg in Cameroon, 3kg per capita in Ghana, 5.5kg in South Africa and 44.4kg in Morocco.

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, it has been estimated that the carbon impact of LPG is substantially less than that of other forms of solid biomass burned in a stove, and produces fewer harmful emissions than other fossil fuels, including kerosene.

Adebayo Ibirogba, vice president of the World LP Gas Association and a senior official with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, said Nigeria produced around 2.7 million metric tonnes of LPG in 2013, but consumed only 50,000 metric tonnes. “Everything else is exported. We are grossly under-utilising gas,” he said.


Innocent Onah, director of the Nigerian chapter of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International), said members of parliament have begun showing greater interest in climate change issues, not least because of the negative impacts the country is suffering, such as floods.

“The major issue is not the absence of laws, but lack of resources and the political will to implement established laws and policies,” Onah told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Samson Ogalla, programme manager at the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), said many African states already have “robust legislation” to deal with environmental problems.

“The continent needs to go beyond mere crafting of environmental laws to full implementation of such laws, with clear monitoring, reporting and verification mechanisms, if it is to address climate change and other environmental challenges,” Ogalla said.

Politicians must also tackle the barriers to positive change on the ground, experts say – starting with poverty, lack of access to electricity, and crippling power deficits in urban areas.

“For the country to have a successful climate change programme, we need to look at why people are cutting down trees and find alternative sources to mitigate that,” said Charles Ndondo, director of Carbon Green Africa, a non-governmental organisation working on REDD+ programmes in Zimbabwe. Here, the use of firewood to cure tobacco is a growing problem.

According to Ewah Eleri, executive director of the International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development (ICEED), more Nigerians are “climbing down the energy ladder” because of poverty, swapping electricity, gas and kerosene for fuel wood and other traditional biomass – which is cheaper or free for those who live in rural areas near forests.


The firewood business is also an important source of income in urban areas. Rabi Alani travels to rural parts of neighbouring Ogun and Ondo states to procure wood for sale at her shop in Ojuwoye market in Mushin, a large suburb of Lagos.

"A lot of people in Lagos use firewood to cook, although most of my customers are bakers, restaurants and people planning feasts. They buy huge quantities of firewood, and you can make a lot of profit that way," she said.

Other traders in Ojuwoye market sell charcoal, produced by chopping down trees and burning the wood. It may be cleaner and less smoky for the end user, but it is also eats up forests.

Ezeala of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation says there is a lack of public awareness of the harm that burning biomass causes to the country’s forest ecosystem.

Nigeria’s inability to move beyond the traditional use of firewood for cooking puts at risk the country’s remaining three percent forest cover, as well as the wildlife that depend on forest habitats for survival, he added.

“We have to adopt policies that will make gas affordable. If this is done, fuel wood will become more expensive, and if we protect the forests, people will not be able to freely go into them to cut down trees,” he said. “Poverty is the greatest threat to the environment.”

For now, the women of Eye-Nkorin are blissfully unaware of the damage their garri business is doing to their natural surroundings – and to themselves.

“We are all used to cooking with firewood,” Odere said. “Our mothers used it to cook and nothing happened to them, so, nothing will happen to us.”

Kayode Ogunbunmi is editor of Nigeria's Lagos-based City-Voice newspaper and a visiting journalism lecturer at Lagos State University. Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

This story is part of a series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

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