Going to waste

Solar power: the dark side

Traded as environmentally sound, solar power leaves waste that could engulf Africa in the same way as plastic

Street lights powered by solar power in Oti province, northern Togo, February 2020. The Togolese government and private sector is installing mini solar power plants in different localities to enable rural communities access to subsidised electricity Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

Daniel Wesonga, a resident of Moi Farm village in western Kenya, is a happy man since purchasing a small solar lamp the size of a medium cup, which also has a high frequency radio. He is now sure of light and entertainment, two things that are about to change his otherwise boring and dark village nights. The 47-year-old father of six has depended on a paraffin lamp, which he says is expensive, considering that he has spent an average of Sh30 ($0.30) of his daily wage of Sh150 ($1.50) as a bicycle repairer on kerosene to ensure his children do their homework for at least three hours every night.

”I bought this on hire purchase, after paying a deposit of Sh600 ($6),” Wesonga told Africa in Fact. “I now have a balance of a similar amount to be paid over the next six months to wholly own the gadget. Farewell to kerosene and messy soot!” Almost every household in the tiny village on the bank of the River Nzoia has a solar gadget, thanks to aggressive marketing by solar firms that have focused especially on rural Africa, where the majority of homesteads are yet to be connected to the power grid. Asked what he will do with the small solar gadget if becomes faulty, Wesonga rubs his thin pale palms on his bushy face. ”I’ll just throw it away, what else can I do?”

Wesonga, just like tens of millions of other people in Africa who have heeded the sustainability agenda and embraced solar power, is clueless on how to handle solar waste. Their governments, which have generously provided incentives to solar firms to ensure high uptake, are not helping either. For instance, Kenya lifted all Value Added Tax (VAT) charges on imported solar products in 2014, and zero-rated import duty on solar imports to motivate households to adopt the cheaper and environmentally friendly energy.

Yet the country has no waste policy to curb mass dumping of photovoltaic panels, which have short lifespans, just like any other electronic gadget. Renewable energy expert Jacob Ng’eno, of African Solar Designs based in Nairobi, says that while solar energy is traded as environmentally sustainable, growing mountains of broken or otherwise non-functioning panels that are likely to be disposed of in two or three decades will wreck the environment.

The Global E-waste Monitor (2017): regional e-waste

In 2016, Asia was the region that generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh; however, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

A call centre bearing solar panels on its rooftop supplies power in a village without electricity in Seguela, Côte d’Ivoire, 2013 Photo: Sia Kambou / AFP

A property developer who violates the rules risks a year in prison or a $10,000 (Sh1 million) fine or both. The standard lifespan of solar gadgets ranges from 20 to 30 years, which means that some of the panels installed in the early part of the current boom are not far from their expiry date. Yet, the country’s e-waste draft Bill 2013 continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves seven years on. Nor is it a priority for the 12th parliament that will exit office in 2021. By then, every person in the world will have at least seven kg of e-waste to dispose of every day, up from 6.1 kg, as captured in the United Nations Global e-waste Monitor, 2017.”Solar waste will soon form a huge part of electronic waste,” Ng’eno said.

“And it’s not easy to recycle. Solar waste will outdo plastic waste, which has wrecked the world in past decades.” He urged African states to come up with urgent plans to deal with e-waste. The Kenyan government’s soft heart for solar traders has seen at least 20,000 additional families acquire solar gadgets. In 2017, Kenya enforced regulations compelling hotels, educational centres and residential buildings to install solar water heating systems, with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2030.

According to that report, the photovoltaic panels associated with solar energy are classified as “large equipment”. The solar waste menace is likely to get ugly in Nigeria, which is a boom market for solar firms, occasioned by high population and extreme poverty. Like Kenya, the western African nation has attracted a significant amount of solar Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the past decade, especially in rural and home solar and photovoltaic (PV) electrification.

In Kenya, solar importers have to meet basic requirements – such as obtaining a class V2 licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), which entitles them to carry out the manufacture or import of solar PV systems or components. Nigeria’s market, meanwhile, is grossly unregulated. This has led to a market in sub-standard solar power products, which have much lower lifespans, and it will inevitably result in considerable e-waste. A recent study by the World Bank placed Nigeria among countries in the world with poor electricity penetration.

High levels of power outages (at least 32.8 in a month) have made the inhabitants of Africa’s most populous nation easy prey for unscrupulous solar vendors. Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) action plan dated December 2019. Most of this will be installed off-grid, while Nigeria aims to have about 40 million batteries, according to an Institute of Development Studies (IDS) publication of December 2016. But the typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to the 20-25 year average lifespan of PV panels.

A solar oven used for solar cooking in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2009 Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP

So this means that over the lifetime of this project about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and recycled to achieve 30,000 MW solar PV capacity. Most of them will find their way into domestic garbage bins. A similar fate awaits other African countries with similar solar power targets in terms of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) of 2015, which calls for the continent to install 300 GW of solar power by 2030. It is perhaps what motivated the Nigerian government to introduce taxes on solar products in February 2018. There’s now a 5% import duty on solar panels and 5% VAT, whereas in the past there were no tariffs on solar panels.

Nigeria also slapped a 20% import duty on solar batteries, to discourage mass imports. Rwanda is one of few countries in the region to have put in place tight regulations to combat the impending solar waste chaos. In July 2014, Rwanda introduced regulations to guide solar water heater dealers, to regulate the market and also to protect consumers from unscrupulous firms. The country’s solar water heating regulations are meant to support the government’s ambitious programme to install 12,000 quality solar water heaters countrywide – which should translate to a saving of 23,328 MHw on the national grid by the end of this year.

Tough penalties have also been set for suppliers and technicians who fail to meet the minimum standards, a move which protects against the dumping of substandard goods. “These regulations are intended to provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the design, installation, operation, repair, maintenance and upgrade of solar water heating systems in Rwanda,” according to the draft regulation issued by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura). The regulation also sets minimum academic qualifications and professional requirements for technicians of solar water heaters in the country.

Those found violating the rules face cash penalties that range from Rwf10,000 – Rwf5 million ($10.50 to $5,300) depending on the offence. Despite these measures, solar firms continue to troop to Rwanda, thanks to the government’s tax policy, which imposes an almost zero rate on solar products, with the aim of reducing the country’s heavy dependency on thermal electricity. In addition to offering tax exemptions, the Rwandan government is meeting 25% of the cost of imported solar power water heaters. Each heater costs between Rwf800,000 and Rwf900,000 (about $900) on the open market in Kigali.

The country is now a significant importer of solar gadgets, which are fast becoming a dependable source of energy, especially in rural areas that are yet to be connected to the national power grid. Yet, as the number of imports into Africa increase each year, so does the solar waste pile, polluting rivers, soils and the air when burnt. In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a multi-country study to research electronic waste in Africa’s off-grid renewable energy sector. The report concluded that the off-grid solar sector across 14 sub- Saharan African countries would produce 3,600 tonnes of electronic waste the following year.

While this represented a fractional percentage of total estimated electronic waste flows, it also put waste from off-grid solar products on a par with electronic waste from the mobile phone industry. Globally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects solar waste to hit 78 million tonnes by 2050, most of it in Africa.

E-waste generation and collection per continent

Indicator Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania
Countries in region 53 35 49 40 13
Population (millions) 1,174 977 4,364 738 39
Waste generation (kg/inh) 1.9 11.6 4.2 16.6 17.3
Indication WG (Mt) 2.2 11.3 18.2 12.3 0.7
Documented to be collected and recycled (Mt) 0.004 1.9 2.7 4.3 0.04
Collection rate 0% 17% 15% 35% 6%

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna


Victor Amadala is an award-winning journalist with hundreds of published works in local and international outlets. He is currently a senior business writer for the Star Newspaper, the third-leading paper in Kenya. A Thomson Reuters New Age Media Fellow, he is passionate about developmental journalism for positive change in Africa.

Danger down by the river

Nigeria: Raped for water

African women and girls in poor communities, forced to walk long distances to fetch water, run the daily risk of rape, beating and even death

Women collect water and do their laundry on the banks of Nigeria’s Uke River Photo: Adie Vanessa Offiong

It was a day like any other last December. Hasiya (not her real name) had to go to fetch water from the Uke River. It is the main source of water for many in the Uke Bus Stop community in Nasarawa State, in Nigeria’s middle belt region. But the 80-minute to-and-fro trip did not quite end like other days.

The 16-year-old said, “I had gone out to fetch water in the evening. It was past five pm already, but I was sure I would make it there and return before it got too dark. There was no water in the house and my mother had already started cooking supper. “I had fetched my bucket of water and was heading back home, when I noticed a group of about five boys sitting by a fence. As soon as they saw me, they began whistling and calling out to me. My heart was pounding as I prayed that… what had happened to other women in the community, would not happen to me.”

Hasiya ignored them and tried to increase her pace, but the weight of the 20-litre bucket of water on her head made it difficult for her to move quickly. She had conflicting thoughts. The first was her fear of being raped. The second was that she might have made a wasted trip. Having walked 40 minutes there and already halfway through her return trip, she dreaded the thought of having to go back to refill her bucket and begin the journey all over again.

But before she knew it, the young men had surrounded her. “They kicked my right leg. I fell down with my bucket of water. I was screaming for help, but I knew I was at their mercy. The road was lonely and it was getting dark too. They pulled my cloth wrap down and started beating me.” Hasiya’s pleas fell on deaf ears – but unexpected help was near. “From nowhere, we heard a motorcycle coming. As it drew closer, they saw the headlight, and they ran away. The motorcycle rider had saved me, and took me home.”

From December through February it is dry and hot, and finding water becomes an evermore time-consuming task. The time it takes to find water can endanger the young women in the area, especially during the harmattan, the dry season. “If we want to get clean water, we have to dig the ground and wait for some time for the water to gather before we can scoop it out with bowls to fill our buckets,” says Nana Adamu, a member of the community.

Water levels in the Uke River have dropped, making water collection more difficult for local women Photo: Adie Vanessa Offiong

In  recent  years, conditions for the women have got worse with every harmattan season; the women have to dig deeper and wait longer for the water to gather. Having time on their hands, they find it useful to do laundry and have a bathe in the river while they wait for their buckets to fill, says Adamu. “But when we stay late at the river, these boys attack us,” she told Africa in Fact. According to the International Water Association, women in sub-Saharan Africa bear the main responsibility for fetching water in 62% of households, compared to men (23%), girls (9%) and boys (6%).

The women of the Uke Bus Stop community are among them. Though they are tasked with most houseold chores, collecting water makes them vulnerable to rapists because they often have to walk some distance from their homes to find it, says Water Empowerment, an organisation that focuses on reducing the time women and girls spend collecting water. Adamu has lost several buckets narrowly escaping such attacks, but she says a neighbour in the Uke Bus Stop community was not so fortunate.

“She was raped and has had to move out of the community [because of] the shame and stigma, especially as she was a married woman.” Bitrus Amadi, who is considered to be one of the elders of the community, has watched the negative development with deep concern. Last year (2019), he says, a girl from the neighbourhood was raped on her way to fetch water by a group of boys who “accused her of wearing a red shirt without their permission.. This thing happened in broad daylight.” Amadi says the community has stopped reporting cases of rape to the police.

“Nothing was happening,” he says. Now, as a precautionary measure, the women only go to the Uke River between the hours of 8AM and 1PM, and always in groups. Sexual assaults were not always a part of the water-fetching narrative of women from the Uke community, says Mary Amadi, who has lived there for about 10 years. “The river was not this far from us,” she says. “When I came here as a newly married women, we went to the river three to four times daily. It took us only about 15 minutes to walk there and about the same time to come back.”

Rural women’s water insecurity

Source: ODI.org

These trips were looked forward to back then because they were a social gathering and gossip time for the women. But, she says, the population has grown and buildings have sprung up, with some people channelling their sewage into the river. The river level has also dropped. Now, she says, people do not go out in the evening. “If you want water and there is electricity, you go to the one borehole we have and pay N15 ($0.38) to get 30 litres of water.” Her household uses 210 litres daily. She adds that, “If there is no electricity, you wait until the next morning, to join the queue if you don’t get there before 7AM, before you can get water.

As a woman and a mother, you pray that at such a time there is no emergency that would warrant your needing water because if there is, you are in trouble.” The experience of the women of the Uke community is not new in Africa, and it is not unique. Across the continent, in West Darfur in 2015, health clinics treated 297 rape victims in five months, 99% of whom were women. Some 82% of the women were raped “while pursuing ordinary daily activities, such as searching for firewood or thatch, working in their fields, fetching water from riverbeds or travelling to the market,” according to a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) report of that year.

The stories illustrate how climate change is having an “overwhelming” negative impact on women’s security, says Dr Priscilla Achakpa, an Abuja-based environmental and gender activist originally from Benue State in Nigeria’s middle belt region. “If a woman doesn’t get water to cook, the husband doesn’t understand why she didn’t get water. That can lead to violence.” But it is not only the daily task of fetching water that endangers women, she adds; they also face these risks while farming, which for many women is their source of income.

In many cases, for example, women may also be struggling with farmlands that are no longer fertile. These are issues relating to climate change that also affect them, and it can result in conflict. A major problem, says Achakpa, is that climate change is a new phenomenon to many women in low-to-middle income countries, and they have little or no information about it – including on how to improve their farming practices. “For most poor women, a source of clean and affordable domestic water and safe and private sanitation facilities that can be reliably accessed are key elements of sustainable development,” said Asa Regner, then Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, during her 2018 address at World Water Week, in Stockholm.

For many women in Africa, having access to this basic resource, under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 (access to safe water and sanitation) is key to their achieving improvements in the areas of life covered by many other SDGs, especially SDG 1 (end to poverty), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities). Meanwhile, the women of the Uke Bus Stop neighbourhood say there’s an obvious way to solve many of their problems: the government just needs to drill more boreholes for their community.


Vanessa Offiong is a journalist in Nigeria, with experience in investigative, science and development journalism. Vanessa is Executive Director of The Black Banana Media & Development Initiative and a Health Systems Global fellow. She has won awards and has been published by the British Medical Journal’s Global Health Blog.

Food from the forest

Agroforestry: nature-based enterprise

Encouraging more sub-Saharan smallholders to farm a mix of food, animals and trees offers an effective way to boost food security and livelihoods

Anne Mburu looks at vegetables that she enriches using slurry that runs off the adjascent flexibag biogas digester installed at her farm in Kiambu, Kenya, 2019 Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP

On a tour of farmlands in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the rural areas you are likely to see green lands with food crops, trees and shrubs. In some instances, the trees may be planted in contour lines interspersed with crops on a piece of land, while in other cases crops are interspersed with shrubs on the same piece of land. This activity, known as agroforestry, has been proposed by environmentalists  and conservationists a tour of farmlands in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the rural  areas, as an effective way to prevent soil erosion as well as boost food security and increase farm income.

For farmers practising agroforestry, their farms are a one-stop shop of products for subsistence as well as a source of income. For instance, farmers cultivate tree products such as fruits, fuel wood, and fodder from their farms. Fodder products boost the growth and milk production of dairy animals such as cows and goats. Farmers in West Africa’s semi-arid areas have adopted multipurpose trees on land popularly known as agroforestry parklands.  In  1999,  the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recognised “their significance as a rich pool of forest genetic diversity” in its report, Agroforestry parklands in sub-Saharan Africa.

But while agroforestry systems promise significant benefits to smallholder farmers, the extent of their socio-economic benefits is still unclear. A study published in the journal World Development in January this year attempted to analyse the downstream socio-economic impacts of agroforestry in Kenya. The study looked at 60 villages practising agroforestry in western Kenya under a Swedish programme, Vi Agroforestry, and 61 villages that were not practising it. Researchers  found that smallholder farmers who practised agroforestry, planting trees and shrubs on their farmlands, increased their revenue by almost $50 per person annually.

The researchers said that “despite evidence of variable programme exposure and agroforestry uptake, we found modest, yet statistically significant, effects of Vi Agroforestry’s programme on intermediate outcomes, such as agroforestry product income, fuel wood access, and milk yields among dairy farmers”. The programme was also found to modestly increase asset holdings, especially among female- headed households. However, the study also revealed that the uptake in agroforestry was not as significant as expected. The $50 revenue increase, the study noted, did not represent “a huge, transformative impact, but it should not be entirely dismissed either”.

The limited uptake of agroforestry might be due to a number of factors, including that “farmers simply do not find such innovations particularly useful and cost-effective.” Farmers were  unlikely  to  adopt  tree species that might not yield high financial returns, according to a 2016 study of Ethiopian farmers by Geremew Worku Kassie in the journal Cogent Food & Agriculture. The Ethiopian farmers preferred to grow eucalyptus trees because of the saleable products they yielded, such as timber. They used the revenue to “purchase improved  farm technologies”, while “the revenue generated from selling tree products could [also] help them to bridge rural financial market failures.”

However, agroforestry is a major method of land use in sub-Saharan Africa, although it is not as widespread as in other regions of the world, such as central America. A study by the World Agroforestry Centre in 2014 mapped the extent of trees on farms in sub-Saharan Africa using satellite imagery and geo- datasets and found that agroforestry amounted to nearly 30% of agricultural land, accommodating 70 million people.

Dina Kapiza, an agro-dealer trained in soil testing, shows the fertiliser in her shop which is most suitable for the soils in Mponela area, Malawi, 2016 Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

Priscilla Wainaina, an agricultural economist at the centre, says that this might be “significantly underestimated due to technical limitations in using satellite imagery to identify low-density tree cover common in agroforestry systems” and because agroforestry occurs in areas not officially defined as cropland. However, she notes that the adoption of agroforestry is still relatively limited in low-income countries. Silvopastoral systems – agroforestry that combines trees, fodder and animal grazing in a complementary way – and shade-grown commodity agroforestry systems such as coffee and cocoa – often meet the formal definition of forests, and might not be captured in satellite imagery.

Agroforestry is widespread practice in sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Uganda and Tanzania leading the field, according to Wainaina. Despite this, however, agroforestry’s potential in sub-Saharan Africa also faces challenges. Results of a study conducted in Rwanda by researchers from the Department of Sustainable Development at Yeungnam University in South Korea and published in the Journal of Forest Science and Technology in November 2017, revealed that despite a government programme and deliberate efforts to promote agroforestry as a way to reduce pressure on the country’s forests, many farmers in the rural areas were not adopting it “due to lack of skills and technical know-how, capital and quality seeds”.

Respondents in Nyamagabe district, where the study took place, told researchers that agroforestry would be boosted by subsidies to farmers, regular training and informal education, the  establishment of tree nurseries to improve the production of quality seeds, and by engaging with farmers in decision-making. Effective incentives, says Wainaina, would encourage farmers to widely adopt agroforestry. She proposes a well- defined land tenure system, including the registration of land rights, especially the customary land rights that are common within sub-Saharan Africa agricultural areas. “Recognition of these customary land rights is essential in addressing insecure tenure in most of sub-Saharan Africa,” she says.

“Customary land rights are typically not written into law but are rather rights that are recognised by the local community.” Importantly, she says that customary tenure principles grant all bona fide members of the local community land  as  a  social  right. The introduction of individual, statutorily recognised rights can have the effect of dissolving long-standing customary rights, making poorer community members particularly vulnerable. It is important, therefore, she says, that existing customary rights are extended statutory recognition with a legal status equal to private and state land.

There is also a need to strengthen linkages and collaboration among researchers, extension officers and smallholder farmers. Projects intending to promote agroforestry should make this a prerequisite, says Wainaina. Examples include projects underwritten by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Green Climate Fund, which require all the stakeholders to work together from the conception of the idea, to implementation and completion. This ensures that farmers get up to date information regularly, she says. The growth and adoption of agro- forestry will also be boosted by nature- based enterprises.

This calls for the value-addition  of  tree  products  such as honey, shea butter, gum as well as connecting smallholder farmers to well- defined markets. “This would incentivise farmers to adopt agroforestry practices, since they are more likely to engage when they can derive direct benefits,” says Wainaina. Tree seedling production should also be promoted as an enterprise in itself, which would lead to the provision of high-quality seedlings, as well as jobs. This would require regular training for people producing and distributing seedlings. Cash-based incentives such as the UN’s REDD+ programme, which works at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, could also help by addressing the liquidity constraints smallholder farmers face.

The programme involves compensating farmers (in cash) in exchange for carbon sequestered by the trees. Projects such as the UN REDD+ programme have been piloted in some agroforestry systems in sub-Saharan Africa, in Tanzania for example. Programmes such as these demonstrate the potential for tree commodities such as cocoa and coffee, which are largely produced within agroforestry systems  in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Ghana and Ivory Coast, says Wainaina.


Gilbert Nakweya is a journalist from Kenya interested in covering scientific issues with a bias towards the developing world. Topics of interest include health, conservation, agriculture, environment, technology, innovation and higher education.

Vast, vital and often criminalised

Charcoal: the grey trade

If forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal could be a renewable energy source that does not destroy the environment

Congolese charcoal dealers push their bicycles up the hill as they transport their produce to the market in Sake, North Kivu, in democratic republic of Congo’s Goma province on December 3, 2011. Much of the charcoal in Goma is produced from trees in the Virunga National Park, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region. A sack of chalrcoal sells for approximately the equivalent of USD20 in the market. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Charcoal is one of the most important commodities in sub-Saharan Africa. In southern and East Africa, the tall, stiff sacks of charcoal propped up by the side of road are one of the most ubiquitous sights when driving along even remote rural roads; likewise, the evening smell of any town is always partially composed of the smoke of charcoal fires. According to the most recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Africa produces nearly 60% of the world’s annual charcoal supply, most of it for domestic use by as much as 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban consumers.

The road-side sacks speak to its vital role as a rural employer; the evening smells to the huge reliance of urban dwellers on charcoal as their primary energy source. The charcoal economy is vast, vital, and often criminalised and corrupt. Its negative impacts are well-known: it contributes to lung disease and forest degradation, and sometimes to deforestation. It has been taxed by Al-Shabaab, and attempts to ensure access to woodlands for charcoal have led to the killing of forest rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by local militias.

For most people, charcoal is either so ordinary it’s invisible, or it is seen as so dangerous that it must be demonised. But this is really a “grey” trade, straddling the legal and the illegal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, and it is too important to remain in this inbetween space. To make charcoal, wood, usually harvested from nearby forests, is burned over several days in an artisanal kiln. Most charcoal producers are poor and often illiterate rural people, who produce charcoal on their own homestead. The process is extremely inefficient – as little as 10-15% of the wood used in this method is actually marketable as charcoal; the rest goes to waste.

From these “backyard” kilns, charcoal is collected and transported to towns and cities, and sometimes across regional borders. The highest-quality charcoal, made from particular tree species, may also be exported off the continent. Along the way, the charcoal trade involves a large range of people: loaders, truck owners, truck drivers, small transporters, creditors, wholesalers, retailers, stove makers, stove retailers, tool retailers, and charcoal exporters. Seen like this, the industry provides income to millions across the region – if not tens of millions. According to a report by the World Bank published in 2018, in rural areas of Mozambique, the industry generates jobs for 136,000 to 214,000 people.

In 2018, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimated that the charcoal trade was the largest informal-sector employer, employing 700,000 people, who in turn were believed to be supporting 2.3-2.5 million people. The charcoal value chain ties the fate of the rural poor to the quality of life of millions of urban residents. For the households in towns and cities who consume most charcoal, it is a cheap and efficient energy source. Other energy sources, when they are available, are simply not as affordable. Combine this reality with the fact that, according to the UN, Africa’s urban population is the fastest growing in the world.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

According to a meeting held by a UN expert group on urbanisation and migration in 2018, urbanisation in east and southern African countries is expected to increase by 74.3% and 43.6% respectively by 2050. While many hope that investment in energy infrastructure – renewable or not – will reduce the urban reliance on charcoal, this seems extremely unlikely to happen soon. Dr Casey Ryan, who researches charcoal production and land-use change at the University of Edinburgh, points out that even if investments come to fruition in the region’s capital cities, most urban growth in Africa is happening in so-called secondary cities: “So, all those cities, which are growing very fast, are mostly going to run on charcoal – and they’re also quite far down the queue for, say, piped gas or electricity, investments which are normally focused on the capital,” he told Africa in Fact.

However, the current dynamics of charcoal production result in environmental degradation, threatening biodiversity and carbon sinks, and some profits from the industry accrue to corrupt and violent groups. The DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique all show alarming rates of loss of forest cover. Charcoal is not the only culprit: deforestation is also happening as land is cleared for farming, and through logging for timber. But charcoal is a significant contributor to this phenomenon, often in a dynamic relationship to other causes of deforestation.

Charcoal production is currently often locked into a damaging cycle with rural poverty, as extended droughts and low agricultural productivity push many away from farming and towards charcoal production, which in turn degrades the environment for agriculture further. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: wood fuels are renewable resources which, if properly managed, can regenerate through the planting of new trees. Their impact on carbon emission is more complex: scientists are split on whether wood-based fuels are carbon neutral or not.

Simply stated, the positive case rests on the idea that newly planted trees absorb carbon dioxide, making up for the emissions caused through burning them. While Europe has come under fire for counting wood fuel used in wood- chip fuelled energy plants as carbon neutral, charcoal production in Africa is much more artisanal and does not necessarily result in large-scale conversion of forest to, say, agricultural land. If trees were selectively harvested, or replanted, forests would fare much better. Much of this calculation ultimately rests on the exact nature of the forest use, fuel production, fuel consumption, and their regulation.

The most extreme impact of the charcoal trade occurs in places where governance is contested, or where there is large-scale criminalisation of the sector. This is the case in the Virunga region of the DRC, where profits from the charcoal trade – amongst other things – flow to militias like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), leading to violent, lethal conflict over access to national parks. Effectively regulating the charcoal industry involves balancing competing interests in preserving forests and sustainable resource use, rural livelihoods and the needs of urban consumers. Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, policies regulating the charcoal trade, if present at all, are typically paper tigers.

Charcoal vendors in Zimbabwe stand beside their wares in Harare, 2019 Photo: Jekesai Njikiz ana / AFP

When faced with criticism about forest degradation and the charcoal trade, states often talk big, but act little. Most states already have laws stipulating a licensing regime for charcoal production, which are intended to keep environmental degradation to a minimum while allowing production to take place. But weak state capability (especially in rural areas), corruption, and the way these things square up against the vital role that charcoal production plays in rural economies, mean that these laws are often barely enforced. The result is that most charcoal production, transport, and sale becomes informal and often illicit, and transporters become a prime source of petty bribes for police.

This is often to the benefit of large entrepreneurs who have “captured” a large slice of the urban market, often by buying state protection. Such clumsy, ineffective, and even insincere, attempts at regulation have the effect of making a massive industry largely illicit. The World Bank’s research in Mozambique, for example, estimated that only about 5% of the charcoal sector was operating under formal regulation. Other researchers have estimated that 80% of production in Tanzania is illicit. While weak regulation fails both at protecting the environment or upholding the interests of rural producers or urban consumers, the use of outright bans is even more destructive.

In Kenya, for example, the production and sale of charcoal is currently under a blanket ban, despite the fact that it remains vital to the basic needs of millions of Kenyan citizens. Other countries also periodically place total bans on the trade when pressure to curb forest degradation becomes intense, but then cannot meaningfully impose the regulation. Ten years ago, research by the World Bank on  East African charcoal value  chains  demonstrated  that bans can make criminality and corruption  in  the industry worse. Urban consumers simply cannot find alternatives to charcoal, as other fuels are far more expensive or unavailable.

Bans mean that a vital industry has to be conducted entirely clandestinely, increasing corruption and state collusion, and transporters pass these costs onto the consumer, driving up prices, which remain high even after bans are lifted. Yet to this day, bans continue to be a popular government reaction. Likewise, academics Esther Marijnen and Judith Verweijen, writing about their research for the London School of Economics, have challenged the idea that strict law enforcement can ever be a solution to the FLDR’s profits from the charcoal trade using trees from the Virunga National Park, as local inhabitants have no other sources of income, and the demand  from the nearby city of Goma is unceasing.

“With little collaboration from the population, can operations to dislodge armed groups from production areas be successful?” these authors ask. “With no alternative livelihoods, will further impoverishing offenders with arrest work as a deterrent?” There is, however, scope for intervention and reform. Researchers such as Mary Njenga from the World Agroforestry Centre argue persuasively that, if forests are properly managed and harvested, charcoal can be a renewable energy source that does not entail environmental destruction. Technical and value chain interventions, Njenga argues, have already been identified in improving the efficiency both of the kilns that are used to produce charcoal and in the stoves that burn it.

A woman sells charcoal in Asosa, Ethiopia, 2019 Photo: Eduardo Soteras / AFP

But regularising the charcoal economy will also be political. It will require tackling interests that benefit from the current (corrupt and poorly regulated) status quo, including powerful entrepreneurs who control profits in urban markets and resist state regulation of the sector. To regularise the trade in a way that is fair and supportive of the poorest, such measures will also have to take into account the realities of rural livelihoods and address highly contentious issues such as access to land. It is in these measures, perhaps counter-intuitively, where the most sustainable intervention will be found in even highly violent situations.


Simone Haysom is a South African writer and researcher, currently based in Geneva. She is the author of The last words of Rowan du Preez : murder and conspiracy on the Cape Flats, published by Jonathan Ball. Her research covers the political economy of crime and corruption in southern and East Africa.