Low cost carbon charcoal takes pressure off Kenya forests

A group of youth from 13 counties in Kenya keen on creating jobs is taking the pressure from felling of trees by recycling waste to make low carbon charcoal which they sell to locals.

It is an initiative that has been hailed for halting the wanton felling of trees which has reached epidemic proportions and which analysts say has been the major contributor to failed rains and unpredictable climatic conditions in the country.

Deforestation in the country by 2010 stood at 5,000 hectares per year according to a survey by the Kenya Forest Services and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). Aware of the catastrophe that the country was staring at, the government in 2009 launched an extensive afforestation program targeting the water towers. The main agenda of the Government authority over the forest is to ensure that 10 per cent of the country is covered with trees.

But the youth, under the umbrella body Climatic Action Teams- Kenya (Kenya CAT) have gone a step further to ameliorate growing deforestation. Aware that tree feeling is done primarily to get fuel wood and with thousands of waste littering around which is a health hazard, the youth have found a way out. It is a model that has become a win win for both users of firewood and the forests.

"Our main objective is to provide ways and means of mitigating the effects of climatic change and the best way to deal with that is to address the root cause which is deforestation. We promote protection and conservation of the environment," said the Climate Action Teams-Kenya's Project Officer, Kevin Ochieng.

The youths are drawn from 13 counties cutting across the Eastern, Western and the Southern regions in the country forming 17 different groups. In collaboration with the waste disposal agencies and large scale farmers, they collect the waste of the high fibre content which they use as raw materials for making the charcoal. "We only use waste of the high fibre content as it determines the quality of charcoal produced. A high fibre material emits more energy and burns for longer unlike the waste with low quantity," says Ochieng. Among the waste they collect include sweet potato and cassava peelings, paper, wheat, coconut and coffee husks, sawdust, maize cobs and hyacinth.

To remove the moisture in the waste, they are burnt before mixing them with a binder that thickens the mixture. "The mixture is then compressed to compact the biomass. A well compacted charcoal will burn for longer as the energy is centred rather than spread," says Ochieng. However the availability of the waste depends on the region of operation for the respective groups. Youth in the Eastern region, he says, will collect more of wheat or coffee husks; Western will have paper, sawdust, hyacinth, maize cobs, cassava or sweet potato peels while the ones located in the Southern will have more of coconut husks.

The charcoal produced in the form of briquettes burns for six hours which is efficient and reliable to cook hard food, the officer says. In each of the regions, the youth groups are expected to produce the charcoal thrice a week. Every group, Ochieng says has a production site equipped with a compressor machine. "The youth groups are branches of the Climatic Action Teams-Kenya in all the 17 regions from which they come from although they have different identity group names. And in every three days a week, they come together to make the charcoal after collecting the waste," notes Ochieng.

The Eastern region includes Thika, Yatta, Embu, Nanyuki, Machakos and Meru while South region includes Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi. Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho, Kisumu, Gilgil, Njoro and Eldoret forms part of the Western region. "Not only does the initiative contribute to the less consumption of trees as the source of fuel. The charcoal is cost efficient as compared to either common wood charcoal or use of gas, " says Ruth Chege, the Naivasha Green Platinum Project coordinator, one of the Kenya CAT groups."One briquette goes for only about Sh30 as compared to a tin of wood charcoal which can only be available for the least Sh60. You only need three pieces to cook a complete course meal of four people, this is just having the price," Chege says.

The British government has sponsored the initiative through UKAid while UN Habitat and UN Environmental Programme facilitates trainings on the whole process of charcoal production as well as proactive measures to controlling deforestation and mitigating effects of climatic changes.

However, the officials decry the low response from the Kenyan society towards adopting the use of the charcoal. "Many people do not know about the charcoal but we are creating community aware-ness educating the people of its advantage over the wood charcoal. But others are unwilling to use it, however, with time we are confident they will try and approve its benefits," notes Chege. Tourists, she says, especially the ones who visit attractive sceneries in some parts of Nakuru County are their main customers. Other parts in the East African state with the high percentage of consumers, the officials say are located in Embu.