Charcoal plays an important role in both the energy sectors and the economies of most African countries. However the inefficiencies inherent to the production and use of charcoal, rapid urbanization, and the preference of urban dwellers for charcoal place a heavy strain on local wood resources. This in turn has severe environment consequences.

The use of charcoal cannot be stopped but, experience has shown, it can be reduced through a variety of measures that promote the sustainable production of wood and efficient use of charcoal through incentives at the local level.

Players in the charcoal market need to be guided so that they can make efficient use of the resources. This should have a high priority in the development plans for most African countries. The World Bank can help by allocating more funds for the realization of these plans.

African governments seldom perceive the importance of charcoal in their national economies. The value of the charcoal market for 26 sub-Saharan African countries for which we have known data exceeds $1.8 billion per year. In energy terms, charcoal consumption in many African countries is higher than gross electricity consumption (although the value of the electricity market is usually much higher than that of charcoal).

Charcoal making provides a considerable amount of employment in rural areas; it allows for a quick return on investments and is often practiced in conjunction with agricultural activities. In Kenya and Cameroon, for example, some 30,000 people are engaged in the woodfuels sector; in Côte d'Ivoire, as many as 90,000.

Why do users like charcoal?

Charcoal is a relatively inexpensive fuel that perfectly suits the users' needs.

Many Africans consider charcoal a modern rather than a traditional fuel. For them, not having to use firewood and agricultural residues represents an improvement in the quality of life. Like firewood, charcoal can be purchased in the preferred quantity. But unlike firewood it burns without smoke, does not decompose even after extended storage, does not create dangerous flames around cooking vessels, and requires a simple stove whose heat output is relatively easy to control.

Charcoal is also probably as close as many householders in poor countries will come to modern fuels, since petroleum fuels (kerosene, LPG, natural gas) and electricity are - and are likely to remain - too expensive. When charcoal users switch to kerosene, they double their fuel expenditures, and this sum is at least doubled again when they switch to LPG or electricity. Costs of cooking equipment also increase dramatically with the comfort levels associated with modern fuels. Thus, unless disposable incomes increase considerably, most Africans will continue using woodfuels.

Why do others dislike charcoal?


Charcoal production is a very inefficient process, particularly with the traditional methods. It does not make much sense to waste energy, not even if it is traditional, indigenous, and renewable. Evaluation of hundreds of traditional kilns in Madagascar and Rwanda showed charcoaling efficiencies of only about eight to nine per cent. In several countries, higher production efficiencies of eight to twenty per cent have been reported. The very low efficiencies obtained in practice can be increased considerably through a systemic effort to help charcoalers become more professional; efficiencies of up to 28 per cent have been observed in practice.

Charcoal is also inefficient in use. Although charcoal stoves are more efficient than firewood stoves (20 to 35 per cent versus 10 to 25 per cent), they are much less efficient than modern-fuel stoves such as kerosene (35 to 50 per cent), LPG (45 to 65 per cent) and electric stoves (75 to 85 per cent). The combined production and use inefficiencies have important consequences. A significant increase in wood consumption could result when urban households switch from firewood to charcoal; cooking with charcoal uses more wood than cooking with firewood, sometimes even three to four times more.


Since the burning characteristics of charcoal and mineral coal are very similar, charcoal use results in high volumes of CO2 emissions, as well as of CO and CH4 (but not SOx). However, if charcoal were produced on a sustainable basis (without causing deforestation), it would be neutral to the carbon cycle; the burning of charcoal would simply release timescale CO2 back in the air. (Editor: Experience shows a higher risk of CO poisoning with charcoal than wood when cooking indoors.)


Environmentalists feel that charcoal production should be stopped altogether because of its destructive nature as presently practiced. However, urban dwellers in some developing countries have a strong appetite for charcoal, and attempts to ban the production or the use of charcoal have been mostly unsuccessful. Since operators can use free raw materials (wood from natural forests or clear fellings) and turn them into a marketable commodity in high demand, they do not have much respect for the sustainability of the resource.


Frequently very little co-ordination and collaboration are evident between energy and forestry ministries since energy ministries are more concerned with electrification and the supplies of petroleum products, and forestry ministries are more concerned with the production of wood in industrial plantations and conservation of wood resources in natural forests. In general, developing countries lack the organizational capacity to formulate effective regulations for woodfuels or even to apply the existing inadequate rules to improve the functioning of the woodfuel market chain. Arbitrary interventions in the woodfuel sector have not resulted in effective regulation in control of the sector.


Switching from woodfuels to petroleum-based fuels such as kerosene and LPG is affordable for many upper- and middle-level households. Further improvements in pricing and delivery (particularly of LPG) are required to enable households lower on the income scale to make the switch away from traditional fuels. Electricity is not a potential substitute for woodfuels. Although electricity is affordable and practical in many areas for lighting, communications, and possibly for refrigeration, few households, rural or urban, will be able to afford to cook with electricity if it is priced at cost-reflective tariffs.


Briquettes made of agricultural waste may compete with traditional fuels if they are of sufficient quality and are priced correctly. This would allow the conversion of low-grade residues to marketable fuels. (Editor. Experience in The Gambia and elsewhere has shown that residue and charcoal briquettes may not burn well in existing stoves (see Boiling Point special Edition on Briquettes 1989/90). In the foreseeable future, coal dust briquettes will become available, particularly in southern Africa and new designs of stoves will be needed to prevent severe pollution and health problems.)

Improved technologies

Increasing end-use efficiency requires the promotion of improved stoves. Traditional stoves are normally made by the informal sector; models with higher heat transfer efficiencies should be developed in collaboration with end-users and stove producers, and manufactured by the private sector.

Improved charcoal kilns do not require a large capital outlay; they simply require better understanding and control of the carbonization process. Drying of wood, better stacking methods, and better process control, in combination with a chimney to force inverted draught, can increase carbonization efficiency from nine per cent to over twenty per cent. However, some charcoalers are reluctant to pursue these improvements since it takes more time and effort to prepare the kiln and control the carbonization process; where the wood is basically free, the charcoaler is better off poorly preparing several traditional kilns in quick succession. Increasing the efficiency of carbonization thus requires regulatory measures, systematic training, and demonstration programs for traditional charcoalers at their habitual work sites. (Editor: modern, charcoal production with the collection of by-products can give much higher efficiency but becomes a larger-scale operation which would displace many charcoal makers.)


Prices of charcoal in real terms have declined or stayed at about the same level for some 10 to 20 years. This fails to give clear signals to governments that the resource base is declining, or incentives to users and producers to use charcoal more efficiently. Wood prices should reflect their cost of production, and levying taxes may be a good way of achieving this. Taxes on charcoal should be based on the wood inputs rather than on the charcoal output. Revenues earned should largely be invested back into the local communities rather than flowing into the central treasury. Regulatory measures should also be put into effect, such as the devolution of control of wood resource to the local population.' Development of the market should be left to the private sector, once prices are right and a control system is in place. In contrast to other regulatory measures, this can work, as it is in the local population's interest to manage their surrounding environment and resource.

1. See 'Niger-Household Energy Project' (forthcoming FPD Energy Note)

Reproduced from Energy Issues, April 1995, a World Bank publication.

Last edited by Miriam Hansen .
Page last modified on Monday October 4, 2010 14:02:32 GMT.
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