From 'Wonderbags' to solar cooking, brilliant solutions to Africa's alarming charcoal problem

By 2030, one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa will depend on biomass as their main energy source. Here are some alternatives.

THE Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has one of the world’s largest expanses of forest – but it is under threat. According to this just-released report by Chatham House, almost half a million hectares of forest are being lost there each year.

As the population continues to grow, so will the threat. Incomes are low in the country and so most people are using simple charcoal stoves for cooking and cheap sources of energy such as charcoal or firewood. Today, approximately 80% of the charcoal is produced illegally in the nearby Virunga National Park – an area of huge importance for biodiversity, and home to the endangered mountain gorillas.

But this situation is not isolated to the DRC. In Africa 90% of wood consumed is used for woodfuel and charcoal - East Africa 94%, North Africa 96%, Central Africa 87%, southern Africa 49%, West Africa 92%. Africa had an official charcoal production rate of 30.6 million tonnes in 2012, worth approximately $6–24.5 billion annually at the point of sale. 

Cooking with charcoal, combined with the use of poorly designed and inefficient cook-stoves, has already had severe health, social and environmental impacts. The use of these wood fuels is increasing pressure on local natural resources, especially when communities extract wood faster than forests can regenerate, and because most cooking in sub-Saharan Africa is done on open fire stoves, this contributes to indoor air pollution and respiratory disease. 

But the situation is not going to change any time soon. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report for 2010, estimated that by 2030 one billion people in sub-Saharan Africa will depend on biomass as their main energy source.

In recognising this, today many environmental groups, businesses and donor institutions are looking to renewable energy technologies that can help to address the energy demands of Africa’s rapidly growing population and people struggling to escape extreme poverty:

Energy-saving Cookstoves
In Kenya over 80% of the urban population is dependent on charcoal. The sector’s estimated value is equivalent to that of the tea industry, and it supports the livelihoods of over 2 million people in the country. A solution lies in agroforestry which would supply wood from farms and if adopted, together with improved kilns and cookstoves, could make the charcoal sector more sustainable. One company doing just this in the country is Cookswell Jikos. This company develops and sells charcoal-saving ceramic jikos (cookstove) and also promotes commercial reforestation and efficient charcoal production.

Similarly in the DRC, a project by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is underway near the Virunga National Park which established the local production of efficient stoves - ‘Jiko Nguvu Nyeusi’ (Black Power Stove) - to cut the use of charcoal, and helped to start small plantations to supply wood for charcoal production on a sustainable basis. This $5 stove has a ceramic liner, in a metal body, and halves charcoal use. About 28,000 stoves are currently in use and 120,000 people benefit. About 25,000 tonnes of charcoal is saved per year by the Nguvu Nyeusi stoves, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 200,000 tonnes per year.

Going solar
In Mogadishu and Borama, Somalia, hundreds of families are starting to take advantage of solar energy instead of using charcoal to cook food and heat water. “Sun Fire Cooking”  developed a solar cooker that is made of several mirrored panels set together to look like a satellite dish. These panels focus sunlight at the centre of the appliance enabling it to heat a cooking pot or an oven. The solar cookers, which are as fast as a gas or electric stove because of the size of the parabolic mirrors, can produce heat up to 200°C and can be used to prepare all types of foods. The benefits of this system are countless – it provides 20 years of free cooking, it’s healthy and clean, families can boil drinking water and it saves Somali households an average of $20 per month in charcoal costs. The catch is that it needs to be in a place with a lot of sun energy.

Non-tree fuel
Making charcoal from something other than trees is also being touted as a solution. By using kilns, charcoal can be made from many other sources.

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) is introducing bamboo as an alternative source. Sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 3 million hectares of bamboo forest that, if managed properly, can offer a highly renewable and versatile resource. Currently the four-year INBAR project is the first initiative to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as an alternative to timber charcoal in Ghana and Ethiopia. 

Bamboo grows quickly, cutting it does not contribute to deforestation and tropical bamboos can be harvested after just three years - rather than the two to six decades needed to generate a timber forest. The technology is being adapted to produce larger quantities of charcoal to serve a larger number of rural and urban communities as well as to produce bamboo charcoal briquettes that are ideal for cooking because they burn longer and produce less smoke and air pollution than ‘natural’ charcoal.

Emerging cooking solutions in Zambia is spearheading a shift from charcoal and firewood to sustainable cooking fuel in Africa. The company came up with an integrated stove and pellet fuel system that uses local renewable biomass as its raw material. By pelletising unwanted agro and forestry waste they are able to produce a 100% renewable bio-fuel. The project started modestly in Zambia in 2010 with 40 households, they now have the capacity to produce clean, renewable cooking fuel for thousands of households. The company states that six tonnes of virgin forest can be destroyed when making one tonne of charcoal. This can be replaced by less than 500 kg of pellets made from rice or wheat husks, coconut shells, straw, peanut-shells, saw-dust or maize stover. In Zambia around 1.2 million tonnes of charcoal could be replaced by the company’s biomass-based pellets.

In Mozambique, CleanStar is a company hoping to eventually make much of the market for charcoal obsolete. In this country a gigantic sack with a month’s worth of cooking fuel sells for about $20 or smaller tin portions can be bought from vendors for approximately $0.45 – the problem is that approximately three of these tins will be needed to cook meals for a single day. CleanStar are offering clean burning cookstoves fuelled by ethanol derived from cassava. Though these cookstoves cost $30 -about 10 times more than a regular cookstove - they offer incredible health and environmental benefits. 

They burn cleaner and heat up instantly - a regular charcoal stoves take between 20 and 30 minutes to get going. Since starting commercial operations in 2012 the company has successfully deployed over 25,000 clean cook stoves and 700,000 litres of clean cooking fuel among households in Maputo, Mozambique. They even built a cooking fuel ethanol plant in Dondo, Mozambique which provides area residents with a cleaner alternative to cooking with charcoal. The facility will convert surplus cassava supplied by local farmers into 2 MMly (about 500,000 gallons a year) of ethanol-based cooking fuel.

The Wonderbag
The South African “wonderbag” is a revolutionary slow-cooker developed to ease the social, economic and environment impacts of the current global circumstances. It is a large non-electric bag that provides insulation to a cooking pot, retaining heat and allows food that has been brought to a boil, to continue cooking after it has been removed from the fuel source. It is said to save 30% of annual household income, reduce CO2 emissions and leads to less deforestation because families need less firewood to cook. It also reduces toxic fumes (which means less respiratory problems), saves water and reduces time spent cooking.

Twitter: @Samooner


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