Threat or opportunity? ‘What is the Future of Woodfuels as a Renewable Energy Source?


Wood energy is critical for many communities in Sub-Saharan Africa as a way to cook food, clean water, and produce and sell charcoal as a source of income. 72% of urban and 98% of rural households use wood fuel in the form of firewood and charcoal for cooking and space heating. The conflict between the need to utilize the resource and the need to protect the health of the ecosystems is obvious. While wood fuel use at the household level has been associated with deforestation (primarily through illegal charcoal production), poor health and contributing to climate change, research shows that it will continue to be a significant energy source in the developing world particularly Sub-Saharan Africa for the foreseeable future.

This staggering data was presented by Wanjira Mathai, Director of the Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER), as an introduction to “’What is the Future of Woodfuels as a Renewable Energy Source?: a panel discussion organised by wPOWER at the Nairobi Garage, Westlands in Nairobi on Thursday, Jan 19.
“So, the big question is: Despite the dominance of wood fuel on the energy value chain, why is it so misunderstood?” Ms Mathai asked the crowd. “And what is the current perception and the future of wood fuel?

Those were the underlying questions at the centre of the discussion, which was moderated by Ms Mathai. The panellists were:  Mary Njenga, Ph.D. –  Researcher in Bioenergy at ICRAF, Ruth Mendum, PhD – Researcher at Gender, Agriculture, Energy and Environment Initiative (GAEEI) Penn State University, Edward Hewitt – Director – Global Lands Strategist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Teddy Kinyanjui – Sustainability Director, Cookswell Jikos, Wanjiku Manyara – General Manager Petroleum Institute of East Africa and Sagun Saxena – CTO Clean Star Ventures.

“We need to switch from the negative attitude to a positive attitude that enables wood fuel to be a renewable, friendly, socially acceptable, sustainable, climate friendly, economically feasible source of energy.” Said Mary Njenga “9 out of 10 households in the rural areas use firewood and depend on it. In urban areas, 8 out of 10 households use charcoal which contributes greatly as an energy source in cooking and heating in Sub-Saharan Africa.,” she said.

Considering the need to address climate change, Edward Hewitt described deforestation as being driven by land use change from forests to agriculture. ‘’To diverse from wood fuel energy would take decades worth of work from the policy level to grassroots’’ said Edward. 50% of forest degradation and deforestation is a result of wood being extracted as an energy source in Sub-Saharan Africa. For ecosystems, it is a devastating development that needs to be challenged. For communities, it is a necessary part of daily life. ‘Wood fuel is here to stay and the idea that wood fuel will be banished is unrealistic’ said Ruth Mendum.

Due to the slow adoption rate of modern sources of energy, more innovation is being directed to wood fuel as a source of energy in Sub Saharan Africa. ’Energy poverty does not allow a big part of the Kenyan majority to access affordable modern cooking fuel like LPG ‘’ said Wanjiku Manyara ‘’unfortunately the very same population is part of the statistics of the number of people who die from diseases that result from indoor air pollution’’.
Promoting a “modern” wood energy value chain can evidently mitigate damage to the health, especially of women and children caused by traditional use of wood energy with simple, highly inefficient, and strongly polluting cookstoves. ‘The problem of emissions is about the fuel you are using, ventilation, type of stove and cooking behaviour. There is opportunity for empowerment of women through wood fuels’ said Mary Njenga.

In Mozambique, LPG has become an emerging source of fuel, with an adoption rate of almost 40,000 households within one year of launch in Maputo, almost 10percent of the urban population paid 45 dollars up front for a cooking solution and used that fuel every other day. This was according to some pilot tests conducted by CTO Clean Star Ventures using a range of different stoves including an ethanol stove. ‘Households are not concerned about environmental issues and health issues, but the cost and convenience of a particular fuel’’ said Sagun Saxena – CTO Clean Star Ventures.

Beyond the kitchen in Kenya, there are many industries and factories that rely on firewood, charcoal or briquettes for their thermal energy needs. Speaking during the discussions, Teddy Kinyanjui said ‘If you talk to tea factories and chemical factories in Nairobi, many of them can’t rely on electricity, not if it goes down in an hour, it’s a huge loss to the business’.

The wood fuel industry has come a long way in the last 10 years, yet the opportunities for further growth are huge, however there needs to be sufficient regulatory mechanisms to provide incentives for sustainable management of wood fuel resources.

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