Charcoal is a highly commercialized commodity in Kenya which can be transported economically over long distances. Studies indicate that only a small proportion of households produce charcoal for own use (7%), while the majority of households (93%) buy it mainly for cooking (Republic of Kenya, 2002).
However the sad scenario in Kenya is that millions of people face domestic energy shortages and wood and charcoal are the only cheap available sources of energy. Modern energy supplies are non-existent or not affordable. In many villages women walk long distances each day to fetch firewood; and in towns families spend up to a third of their income on wood or charcoal. At the same time, the exclusive use of wood and charcoal for energy has led to the increase of deforestation which had contributed to the current increase of problems of drought and desertification.
The disappearance of forests protecting watersheds has led to more variability and thus less availability of surface waters and diminishes water infiltration supplying aquifers. In addition, the loss of vegetative cover also increases hydraulic and wind erosion, and can start the process of soil erosion destroying land fertility. And this is slowly or rather has led to serious climate change issues.
In Kisii County for instance, rivers have dried up because people are continuously cutting down trees in order to produce charcoal for sell in the neighborhood cities more so Nairobi which has the highest demand.
Despite all this, there are over 200,000 charcoal producers operating in Kenya, and around half a million people (producers, transporters and vendors) involved directly in the charcoal trade (almost half of these on a full time-basis) who support around 2.5 million dependents.
The amount of charcoal produced each year in Kenya is 1.6 million tones. The annual income from charcoal is around Kenya Shillings 32 billion (USD 400 million) almost equivalent to the income generated from Kenya’s tea industry.
As these statistics show charcoal is big business even though it’s been outlawed by the government! As one can see, charcoal production must stop or change to save the environment and forests in Kenya.
Up to date there is no workable or adaptable solution that has been found to replace the charcoal business in Kenya. The green charcoal, a new innovative technology for renewable household energy, producing a household fuel alternative to wood derived from agricultural residues not used for animal foodstuffs, is yet gaining popularity. A worrying scenario is that still many of the population entirely depend on trees for charcoal, till the new technology sink into their minds our forests are at great risk.
Several studies in charcoal producing countries have attempted to capture the impacts of charcoal on deforestation and forest degradation. In Malawi, Kambewa, et al., (2007) analysis of the impact of the charcoal industry on forests revealed a volume equivalent to about 15,000 hectares of forestland being cut per year, with close to 60% of the charcoal being produced in Forest Reserves and National Parks. The study also reveals the negative impacts of charcoal making on species composition of forests. In this situation preferred species for charcoal making are removed leaving woodlands of lower quality.
In Kenya, close to 22 million cubic metres of wood is carbonized to meet Kenya’s annual charcoal demand. About 40% of the charcoal comes from rangelands, 40% from farmlands and 20% from government forests (Republic of Kenya, 2002). Even though Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands are the major sources of charcoal, cattle production remains an important economic activity in these areas.
According to Mugo and Ong (2007) in most areas such as Taita Taveta and Kitui districts where land is managed for livestock production in ranches, squatters clear trees, shrubs and bushes to free up the land for pasture production. Charcoal is then produced from the cleared wood.
On the other hand, land cleared for agriculture produces wood for charcoal in Narok District (Mutimba and Barasa 2005). Communities in Garissa district clear and produce charcoal from an invasive tree species popularly known as Mathenge (Prosopis juliflora) in an effort to save pastures for their livestock (Mutimba and Barasa 2005).
Unfortunately, charcoal production remains quite traditional, with inefficient wood to charcoal conversion from less than 10% to about 15%, thereby exacerbating the problem.