Energy technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, yet in 80 percent of African homes charcoal and wood remain the primary sources of fuel.
The negative effects are high. Charcoal is dangerous for health, saps incomes, and ruins the environment. Nonetheless the charcoal industry across the continent continues to grow at a staggering pace while electricity access and clean fuels lag far behind.
Today charcoal production is a multi-billion dollar – and largely illegal – industry. In Uganda, for example, the National Forestry Authority estimates 80,000 hectares of private and protected forests are being cleared annually to produce charcoal.
As demand continues to outstrip supply, innovative companies are stepping in to plug the fuel gap with alternative energy solutions. Their hope is African households will reduce or replace charcoal in their homes, given a better alternative.
Kenyan company Sanivation’s solution comes in the form of fuel briquettes. There is a catch, however: the briquettes are made from human waste.
Sanivation has developed a process which, using thermal energy from the sun, raises human waste to very high temperatures, inactivating all pathogens and rendering it safe for reuse. This is then mixed with carbonised waste products to make briquettes, which look much the same as charcoal but burn more efficiently.
“Our briquettes preserve 88 trees per ton, save people 15 to 20 percent of their fuel expenditure, and have lower smoke than traditional charcoal,” explains co-founder and CEO Andrew Foote. By the end of 2016, the company will have sold some 100 tonnes of briquettes.
Sanivation tackles two problems at once: providing a sustainable, cleaner burning fuel. “By addressing the full value-chain we are able to be one of the most cost effective options for a city processing its waste. We are on track to have one of the highest cost recovery rates of a waste treatment plant in the world,” Mr Foote says.
Charcoal costs can account for up to 30 per cent of a family’s daily income. “We sell our briquettes for less than or comparable prices to charcoal and they burn longer than traditional charcoal, decreasing the amount families have to spend on their fuel needs,” he argues.
With these benefits in mind, Mr Foote says Africa could lead the world in developing and adopting alternative energies.
“Just as Africa jumped over the landline, we’re hoping Africa will quickly bypass destructive forms of fuel for renewable and healthy options such as sustainable biomass, solar, wind, and geothermal.”
However, establishing alternative fuels is a long-term game. Sanivation concedes it is unlikely that charcoal will be replaced as the primary fuel source in African homes within the next 15 years.
Other innovators are looking to tackle the problems posed by charcoal from other angles. BURN, another company based in Kenya, manufactures an innovative cooking stove, the “Jikokoa”, which cuts charcoal use by more than half.
The stove lights and burns more efficiently than traditional devices, and produces 64 percent less smoke. Families using the Jikokoa save more than 50 percent on charcoal costs and enjoy better health. So far, more than 200,000 Jikokoas have been sold.
Chris Akin, vice-president of sales and marketing at BURN, says that while the company cannot predict whether charcoal will ever be replaced as a key fuel in Africa, BURN’s vision is to ensure families have access to cookstoves that reduce their health risks.
“We see a future where African homes adopt improved clean cooking solutions, [and] that will see the improvement in the health of women and children,” he says.
Similar initiatives have popped up in other countries. Zambia’s Project Optima, for instance, uses a franchise model so women can sell their cleaner burning wood chip stoves within their communities. The US State Department under Hillary Clinton allocated some $114m to a global Clean Cookstoves initiative between 2000 and 2015.
However there is clearly a long way to go. While some progress has been made to introduce alternative energy solutions in Africa, Tim Christophersen, senior expert on forests and climate change at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), says the results have been modest due mainly to pricing challenges and lax regulation.
He cautions that innovators must focus on keeping prices low if they are going to convert consumers to alternative fuel solutions at large scale. “Behavioural change in urban centres as far as demand for cooking energy is concerned is intimately related to the price issue,” he says.
Regulation is also essential to bringing about change, according to Mr Christophersen. Currently governments are not doing enough to regulate the charcoal supply chain, allowing the cycle of increasing demand and informal supply to continue.
Policies are needed to support scaling up alternative energy innovations, to incentivise sustainable charcoal production – including through better forest management – to promote alternative livelihoods for informal charcoal producers and to address current illegal trade.
With political will, planning and some creative thinking, better fuel options could be rolled out to millions of households across Africa. Given the advantages, ending charcoal dependency should not be a hard sell.