Bamboo energy can save African forests

Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate mainly because 70% of the continent’s population use wood as their principal source of energy for cooking. Attempts to stop this practice have failed as for most people, there has been no viable alternative to wood. But nature itself has provided the solution – bamboo. Francis […]


Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate mainly because 70% of the continent’s population use wood as their principal source of energy for cooking. Attempts to stop this practice have failed as for most people, there has been no viable alternative to wood. But nature itself has provided the solution – bamboo. Francis L. Sackitey reports on how African countries are turning to this plant to save their forests without losing their main source of cooking fuel.

Among the numerous human activities that cause climate change in Africa is the cutting of trees for charcoal. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the 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. According to Environmental News Network, ENN, every year Africa loses forest cover equal to the size of Switzerland.

Terence Sunderland, a senior scientist at the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said 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. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says that Africa is losing more than 4m hectares (9.9m acres) of forest every year – twice the world’s average deforestation rate. Apart from the deforestation that wood cutting causes, the burning of wood also releases the carbon stored inside. And deforestation, according to scientists, accounts for at least a fifth of all carbon emissions globally, which is a serious health hazard.

Burning wood also has a significant impact on the climate. Scientists predict that the burning of wood fuel by African households would release the equivalent of 6.7bn tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050. In terms of health, the burning of fuel wood claims the lives of an estimated 2m people every year mostly women and children who inhale the smoke, according to data from the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). Continued widespread indoor use of forest wood charcoal as a household fuel could cause 10m premature deaths by 2030.

Dealing with the problem

Realising the consequences of tree cutting and the use of charcoal in Africa, many African countries are coming together with the help of international bodies to deal with the problem. One of the solutions being offered is the use of bamboo charcoal as bioenergy. China, INBAR and a partnership among African nations and communities are working to substitute bamboo charcoal with firewood from forest wood.

The EU and the Common Fund for Commodities are funding the initiative. The market is huge: 80% of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa depend on naturally occurring fuel sources for their energy needs. China is a global leader in the production and use of bamboo charcoal, where the business is worth an estimated $1bn a year and employs over 60,000 people in more than 1,000 businesses.

They are bringing industrial partners, including the Nanjing Forestry University and Wenzhao Bamboo Charcoal Company to help adapt equipment like brick kilns, grinders and briquette machines, and hand tools for bamboo charcoal and briquette production using the local materials. This will enhance bamboo production internationally. The value of world bamboo exports was estimated at $1.6bn in 2009, a decline of about $659m from $2.2bn 2008.

In Ghana, where the first stage of the concept is under way, 300 small enterprises in the programme area have been established. There are over 2,000 growers cultivating bamboo as well as being involved in charcoal production and 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.

A total of 505 metric tons of bamboo charcoal had been produced by end 2011. Currently the project, ‘Bamboo as sustainable biomass energy, a suitable alternative for firewood and charcoal production in Africa’ is being implemented in Daboase and Tandan in the Mpohoor Wassa East and Ellembelle Districts in the Western Region of Ghana. The EU is providing most of the €1.663m funding but INBAR is contributing 20% of the budget cost. Key partners of the project are the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG) and Bamboo and Rattan Development Programme under the Ministry of Lands and Natural resources. Associate partners include the Energy Commission and Chemical Engineering Department at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).

Conscious efforts to cultivate bamboo have resulted in the planting of 11,733 seedlings out of 14,880 seedlings propagated from 15 different species selected across the globe.

Avoiding disaster

Bamboo technology is a welcome concept in Ghana because the rate of forest depletion shows that the country has lost about 6.6m hectares of forest cover since the beginning of the last century and has the highest rate of deforestation of 2.19% globally – a disaster in the making.

Like Ghana, Ethiopia has a huge deforestation problem. According to available statistics, trees covered 35% of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3%. Ethiopia is therefore trying to reverse deforestation by planting bamboo trees.

Dr J Coosje Hoogendoorn, Director General of INBAR, says, “Bamboo is the perfect biomass grass which grows naturally across Africa and presents a viable, cleaner and sustainable alternative to wood fuel. Without such an alternative, wood charcoal would remain the primary household energy source for decades to come with disastrous consequences.” Professor Karanja M Njoroge, Executive Director, The Green Belt Movement, points out, “Bamboo grows naturally across Africa’s diverse landscapes, but unlike trees, it regrows after harvest and lends itself very well for energy plantations on degraded lands. We should put it to good use to provide clean energy for the continent.” Sub-Saharan Africa has over 2.75m hectares of bamboo forest, equivalent to roughly 4% of the continent’s total forest cover.

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet and produces large amounts of biomass, making it an ideal energy source. Tropical bamboos can be harvested after three years, compared to the two to six decades needed to generate a timber forest. The entire bamboo plant, including the stem, branch and its rhizome, can be used to produce charcoal, making it highly resourceefficient, with limited waste. Its high heating value also makes it an efficient fuel. The charcoal production is like any other – the controlled burning of bamboo in kilns, whether traditional, metal, or brick.

In addition to charcoal, bamboo offers many new opportunities for income generation. It is being processed into a vast range of wood products, from floorboards to furniture and from charcoal to edible shoots. “It is not effective to ban charcoal production,” said Jolanda Jonkhart, the director of trade and development programs at INBAR. “It is more effective to promote charcoal production with renewable biomass sources such as bamboo.”

It is envisaged that Africa’s leadership, policy makers, private sector, metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies, religious and traditional authorities as well as civil society organisations would lead the crusade towards saving the forests and the environment by helping to promote bamboo planting and its use for charcoal.

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