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Kenya blazes a trail to more sustainable charcoal - and better livelihoods

by Winnie Chelagat, Anne Nyambane and Hannah Wanjiru | Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
Wednesday, 17 August 2016 15:15 GMT

A charcoal vendor goes about his work in Kibera slum, Nairobi, March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kenya tries a new approach: working with organised charcoal producers to modernise their trade, reducing harm to forests

For Patrick Kituku and the people he represents, a single word means a lot. They have often been referred to as “charcoal burners”. Now, people are starting to use the term “charcoal producers”.

“That is a big step,” says Kituku, who chairs the Mutha Charcoal Producers Association in Kitui County, in southeast Kenya. After years of being marginalised, members are coming closer to their goal of having charcoal seen “as a product just like maize, beans, fruits… that actually support people’s livelihoods”.

Charcoal is a big part of Kenyans’ energy supply. According to the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), it provides 82 percent of household energy in urban areas, and 34 percent in rural areas. Charcoal production provides jobs and income to more than 700,000 people, supporting over 2 million dependents.

Yet until recently, charcoal production in Kenya was unregulated and illegal. With no viable alternatives for households, however, charcoal use has continued to increase.

So Kenya is trying a new approach: working with organised and registered charcoal producers to modernise their trade.

Investing in technology can make a huge difference. Traditional earth kilns are not only hard to use and smoky, but produce only about 1 kg of charcoal per 10 kg of wood. Modern kilns can increase the yield to about 3 kg.

In other words, with modern technology, Kenyans can keep using charcoal while making a much smaller impact on forests.

The challenge is that modern kilns are too expensive for charcoal producers, most of whom are poor. But if they band together, they can afford it. That is a key aspect of Kenya’s strategy.

In 2009, the Kenyan government adopted charcoal regulations under the Forest Act 2005 that set guidelines for a sustainable charcoal value chain.

Central to the new system is the establishment of charcoal producer associations as the vehicle for licensing charcoal production. Association members are expected to use the most efficient conversion technologies and harvest wood responsibly.  

Kenya’s devolved government structure calls for counties to develop their own policy and legal mechanisms under the regulations. Among the first to do so is Kitui, one of the country’s top two charcoal-producing counties, along with Tharaka Nithi.

The Kitui County Charcoal Management Act of 2014 requires all charcoal producers to be part of an association, which in turn must formulate a constitution with guidance from KFS.

The constitution addresses which type of trees can be cut, which areas must be avoided, and how forests will be replanted to ensure a continuous supply of wood for charcoal production. The group Kituku chairs was established under this law.


For charcoal producers, there are multiple benefits of being in an association. First of all, if they want to upgrade to a more efficient kiln, they do not need to pay for it on their own. Instead, members come together to buy a kiln, to be used in rotation, or accessed whenever a producer needs it.

An association makes it easier for charcoal producers to comply with rules and regulations by working closely with the KFS regional office and the local environmental committee, and conveying the rules through its code of conduct.

And members are empowered, as they use their collective resources to deliver charcoal to markets, and then share equally in the sales revenue. That is a big improvement from the past, when producers had to rely on middlemen who took the bulk of the revenue.

Dependence on middlemen and others who exploited them also drove charcoal producers to make as much charcoal as cheaply as possible, exacerbating air pollution and deforestation problems.

Now, through the association, charcoal producers are earning enough to invest in other projects that will enable them to diversify their livelihoods, so they depend less on the forests over time.

“My long-term vision for the members of the group I head is that they will eventually abandon charcoal production after investing the money they get in other income-generating activities,” says Patrick Vaati, chair of the Charcoal Producers Association Group in Mutomo village. “I hope that the number of people producing charcoal will start to decline soon, as the business should be a stepping stone.”

Kitui County offers many lessons for the rest of Kenya - and Africa. A recent workshop organized by the Stockholm Environment Institute in collaboration with key stakeholders brought together policy-makers and charcoal producers to try to draw out those lessons and identify a path forward.

The first lesson is that laws and policies on charcoal production can and do work, if properly implemented and enforced. Counties that are not yet regulating charcoal production are missing out on a big opportunity. 

Second, while the associations are helping charcoal producers to modernise their trade, policy-makers can help them do much better. In particular, there is a need to improve access to finance - both to make the most of modern technology and to start new ventures unrelated to charcoal. Policy-makers need to work with banks to find appropriate solutions.

Third, capacity-building is crucial. In Kitui County, charcoal producers need more training on efficient technologies and best environmental practices, as well as a platform to share knowledge. And across Kenya, there is a need to build capacity within county governments, so they can follow the Kitui example.

Kenya is committed to building a clean, low-carbon energy supply. By recognising the importance of charcoal, and treating producers with respect and dignity, it will improve rural livelihoods while ensuring that charcoal is made more sustainably.

Winnie Chelagat is a communications intern at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Africa Centre, in Nairobi. Anne Nyambane and Hannah Waniiru are research associates at SEI, also in Nairobi.