It is no secret that deforestation in Africa is a growing issue with substantial effects on natural systems and human populations. The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that Africa is losing more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) of forest every year — twice the world’s average deforestation rate. Deforestation on this scale has serious repercussions including widespread drought, desertification, extinction of animal populations and ultimately human loss of life.
Forests, climate and health
A significant driver of deforestation in Africa is the use of trees for firewood and charcoal production. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of people cook their meals over wood fires. Thus the very poorest cut down trees for cooking fuel while those slightly less poor buy charcoal made from wood in those same forests. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) reports that in southern Africa, even trees that can be used for fine carving, such as ebony and rosewood, are being cut down and made into charcoal, such is the demand for biomass fuel in this area.
Wood burning in this manner not only causes problems associated with deforestation – there are also wider climate and health issues. The burning of wood fuel by African households is predicted to release the equivalent of 6.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050. Burning of fuel wood claims the lives of an estimated 2 million people every year mostly women and children who inhale the smoke, according to data from The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).
The solution: Bamboo
In response to the problems posed burning wood for fuel and charcoal production, several African nations and international bodies are searching for appropriate solutions that can be widely applied. One solution that shows a lot of promise is the use of bamboo charcoal as bioenergy. In Ghana, the first phase of a large scale project is underway that will see bamboo charcoal being widely produced and used in place of traditional wood fuel.
The project is being funded by the European Union and INBAR, and represents a partnership between in-country institutes and university programmes. To date 300 micro small enterprises in the program area have been established with over 2,000 growers cultivating bamboo as well as producing charcoal. Some 7,000 low-income local households are expected to use bamboo charcoal as cooking fuel by the close of the project year in 2014.
Bamboo is an ideal species for use as a bioenergy source. It is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet and can be harvested after three years. Bamboo grows naturally across Africa (around 4 percent of forest cover is bamboo) so conditions are already ideal for growing the plant as a crop. The entire bamboo plant can be used to produce charcoal, resulting in limited waste and it has a high heating value which makes it an efficient fuel. Charcoal from bamboo burns longer and produces less smoke and air pollution than ‘natural’ charcoal.
Bamboo charcoal production doesn’t not require any new technology and can be created through controlled burning in standard charcoal kilns. In addition to charcoal, bamboo offers many new opportunities for income generation and can be processed into a wide range of wood products, such as floorboards and furniture.
There are clear benefits to using bamboo as a bioenergy source. As well as reducing levels of deforestation caused by felling trees for fuel, the initiative also does not seek to radically alter the livelihoods of its beneficiaries but rather make their current activities more sustainable.
Encouraging this ‘sideways shift’ in the livelihoods of rural, forest-dependent communities lies at the heart of the work that ITF carries out around Africa. Many ITF projects centre around the cultivation and use of trees that can be harvested as a sustainable alternative to the used of forest trees. These projects not only reduce deforestation but also provide new income sources for beneficiaries.