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Charcoal, livelihoods, and poverty reduction: Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa
Leo C. Zulu
, Robert B. Richardson
Michigan State University, USA
Received 3 April 2012
Revised 10 July 2012
Accepted 11 July 2012
Available online 1 September 2012
More than 80% of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal as their main source of cooking energy,
and the demand is likely to increase for several decades. Charcoal is also a major source of income for rural
households in areas with access to urban markets. We review studies of the socioeconomic implications of
charcoal production and use, focusing holistically on the role of charcoal in poverty alleviation based on
four dimensions of poverty deﬁned by the World Bank: (i) material deprivation, (ii) poor health and educa-
tion, (iii) vulnerability and exposure to risk, and (iv) voicelessness and powerlessness. We draw conclusions
from household-level studies to better understand the determinants of participation in charcoal production
and sale, and of urban household demand. Poorer households are more likely to participate in the production
and sale of charcoal but their participation is mainly a safety net to supplement other income. Although char-
coal production contributes to poverty reduction through alternative income-generation opportunities, it can
also undermine production of ecosystem services, agricultural production, and human hea lth. Reducing rural
household dependence on charcoal requires coordinated policies providing alternative income opportunities
for farmers, affordable alternative energy sources for urban households, and more efﬁcient and sustainable
approaches for producing and using charcoal. For future research, we emphasize the importance of large-N
panel datasets to better understand the net beneﬁts of charcoal production as a poverty-reduction strategy.
© 2012 International Energy Initiative. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Introduction ................................................................ 127
Charcoal production policies and poverty in Africa .............................................. 130
Charcoal production, trading and incomes in Africa .............................................. 131
Material deprivation: charcoal and poverty alleviation through income generation ............................ 131
Negative impacts of charcoal production on poverty ............................................. 133
Vulnerability and risk: environmental impacts of charcoal production and trade . ............................ 133
Human health: impacts of charcoal use ................................................ 133
Voicelessness: social impacts of charcoal production and trade ..................................... 134
Prospects of and limits to charcoal production as a tool for poverty reduction—a conclusion ........................... 135
References ................................................................. 136
For Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, charcoal is not only the
major source of household energy for the majority of the urban pop-
ulation, it is also a signiﬁcant contributor to national energy balances,
an important source of household incomes, and a potentially renew-
able energy source capable of powering signiﬁcant economic growth
while reducing dependency of poor developing countries on costly
energy imports (Arnold et al., 2006; Sepp, 2010). Several advantages
make charcoal attractive for cooking and heating, especially among
the urban poor. Compared to ﬁrewood, charcoal has higher energy
content, is less bulky, easier to transport, and more accessible, and
burns more cleanly (with less smoke) (Akpalu et al., 2011; MARGE,
2009). Further, purchased charcoal is inexpensive, readily available,
and generally has a stable supply and market, relative to modern
alternatives (Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003). Charcoal is also linked
to poverty in several ways and at multiple scales. At the macro
level, woodfuels constitute a signiﬁcant productive sector of the econ-
omies of many SSA countries and contribute to poverty reduction
Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 517 432 4744.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (L.C. Zulu).
0973-0826/$ – see front matter © 2012 International Energy Initiative. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Energy for Sustainable Development
through national development, employment, and household income
generation (Angelsen and Wunder, 2003).
3.5% of Malawi's GDP (Zulu, 2010) and 120,000–140,000 in direct em-
ployment in 2008 (MARGE, 2009). Charcoal alone was estimated to
contribute $650 million to Tanzania's economy, 5.8 times the com-
bined value of coffee and tea production, and the sector provided
income to several hundred thousands of households in both urban
and rural areas (World Bank, 2009).
Growing urban charcoal
demand and markets provide opportunities for income generation
from the production of charcoal in rural areas where it is often the
most commercialized resource, and from the sale of charcoal in
urban areas (Arnold et al., 2006; Kambewa et al., 2007; Luoga et al.,
2000; SEI, 2002). The charcoal market also provides urban households
with an affordable, convenient and reliable source of energy and asso-
ciated energy services (cooking, heating, small-scale industrial uses,
etc.) at relatively stable prices (Desanker and Zulu, 2001; Ellegàrd
and Nordström, 2003; MARGE, 2009; Richardson, 2010). However,
charcoal production can also have perverse effects on poverty. These
include negative health impacts at the production and use sites gener-
ally associated with smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning
(Akpalu et al., 2011; Arnold et al., 2006; Ezzati and Kammen, 2001;
IEA, 2010); localized deforestation around cities such as Addis
Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, Maputo, Lilongwe, and Dakar, and asso-
ciated environmental degradation including soil erosion resulting in
lower agricultural productivity (Alem et al., 2010; Arnold et al.,
2006; Kambewa et al., 2007; Luoga et al., 2000; Mwampamba, 2007;
Ribot, 1999; SEI, 2002). Negative social impacts include exploitation
of producers and traders by middlemen and elites, ofﬁcial corruption
that increases transaction costs and unequal gender relations sur-
rounding charcoal production and use that overburden women or ex-
pose them to health risks (IEA, 2002; Kambewa et al., 2007; Larson
and Ribot, 2007; Post and Snel, 2003; Ribot, 1995, 2009). For the ma-
jority of urban dwellers who depend on inefﬁcient, “inferior” or
“dirty” woodfuels for energy (relative to liqueﬁed petroleum gas
(LPG) kerosene, and electricity), charcoal can also maintain, worsen,
or be an indicator of poverty in the form of charcoal dependency—
the so-called “charcoal trap” (Kutsch et al., 2011). Charcoal use is
also associated with poor energy services and quality of life (e.g., ill-
nesses) relative to the cleaner alternatives ( Arnold et al., 2006;
Desanker and Zulu, 2001; Guruswamy, 2011; IEA, 2002, 2010; Mar-
tins, 2005). However, charcoal is often considered the transition fuel
because it is also higher up the energy ladder and superior to ﬁre-
wood, which is better than crop residues and dung.
Thus, it is impor-
tant to analyze the extent to which charcoal production and trading
currently and potentially can contribute to net poverty alleviation.
The growing demand for charcoal in Africa driven by high popula-
tion and urbanization growth rates makes charcoal the major primary
source of energy for most urban dwellers for at least another genera-
tion, yet it is paradoxical that charcoal has been relatively neglected
within, and disjointed across, energy, forestry, and poverty reduction
policies since the so called “woodfuel crisis” debates of the 1970s/
1980s (Arnold et al., 2006; World Bank, 2001; Zulu, 2010). Although
geographically differentiated within Africa (see Fig. 1B), charcoal con-
sumption in Africa is expected to increase considerably and faster than
other regions of the world (Fig. 1A), doubling by 2030 versus a 24% in-
crease for ﬁrewood (Arnold et al., 2006).
Yet, despite being/burning
cleaner than ﬁrewood, crop residues, and dung, charcoal remains “the
black sheep in Africa's renewable energy family” (Chaix, 2011)witha
negative image as dirty, unhealthy, and primitive, if not illicit (Mugo
and Ong, 2006; Sepp, 2010; Zulu, 2010). A post-conference communiqué
of a gathering of 54 African Energy Ministers discussing common ap-
pro aches to energy access and low-carbon econ omic growth given
climate change held in Johannesburg in September 2011 failed to
even mention char coal (Chaix, 2011). As var iou s auth ors now note,
charcoal can no longer be ignored as a current and future major en-
ergy source (Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003; MARGE, 2009;
Syampungani et al., 2011; Zulu, 2010).
Apparently, putting too much faith in the “energy transition” theory
has undermined realistic, proactive policy-making on charcoal. The
energy-transition theory postulates that as household incomes increase
and individuals and countries develop economically, people's energy
preferences will transition up an energy ladder from the “inferior” bio-
mass fuels through charcoal – the “transition fuel”–to modern cleaner
alternatives including LPG, kerosene, and electricity (Arnold et al., 2006;
Campbell et al., 2003; Hosier and Dowd, 1987; Leach and Mearns,
Although this theory largely holds in global terms, recent
evidence shows that for Africa, several obstacles make the theorized
energy transition proceed more slowly than anticipated, and it ulti-
mately may be incomplete, producing instead energy mixes that
include charcoal (Chambwera and Folmer, 2007; Hiemstra-van der
Horst and Hovorka, 2008; Martins, 2005; Masera et al., 2000). In addi-
tion, the negative image of charcoal – including its misperception as a
major cause of deforestation and environmental degradation – has con-
tributed to restrictive policies on charcoal including trading bans in
many SSA countries. Such bans have increased production costs, re-
duced market access, driven the charcoal market ‘underground,’ in-
creased corruption, denied governments much needed tax revenues
from potential regulated exploitation, and undermined charcoal's
potential as a poverty reduction tool in many SSA countries (Angelsen
and Wunder, 2003; Dewees, 1995; Kambewa et al., 2007; World Bank,
2009). For instance, Tanzania and Malawi lost at least $100 million
and $17.3 million in uncollected charcoal-based revenues, respectively
(World Bank, 2009; Zulu, 2010).
This article reviews literature on the link between charcoal and pov-
erty, focusing on the role of charcoal production and trading on poverty
reduction in Africa. While there is a rich literature on the poverty/forest
link, it is largely from the negative narrative of a “downward spiral” of
poverty causing forest loss and environmental degradation, which fur-
ther exacerbate poverty, with relatively little systematic analysis of
how and the extent to which forests can reduce poverty (Angelsen
and Wunder, 2003; Arnold et al., 2006; Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003;
SEI, 2002; Sunderlin et al., 2005). Several studies have examined the
forest/poverty link looking at tropical forests generically (Angelsen
and Wunder, 2003; Wunder, 2001), non-timber forest products
(Neumann and Hirsch, 2000), woodfuels (Arnold et al., 2006), or local
forest/livelihood interactions (Byron and Arnold, 1999; Sunderlin et
al., 2005). However, few studies have examined charcoal/poverty link-
ages holistically, or for Africa regionally. The growing demand for char-
coal has increased opportunities for income generation, rural livelihood
support (production and trading), and poverty alleviation, and enabled
the expansion of domestic markets, particularly in urban areas where
woodfuel is scarce (Arnold et al., 2006; Campbell et al., 2007). However,
charcoal production and trading also pose challenges including
unsustainable production, environmental degradation and negative
health impacts for households already constrained by material
In this article woodfuel refers to both charcoal and ﬁrewood.
FAO statistics show that on average the forest sector contributed 1.3% of Africa's
GDP, ranging from 0.1% in Eritrea, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania and Congo to 17.7% in
Liberia (FAO, 2011), but these statistics fail to adequately capture the woodfuel contri-
bution, which is often in the informal sector.
Thus, comparatively resource wealthy SSA can still afford to use charcoal, an option
less available to South Asia.
Aggregate consumption of wood for both ﬁrewood and charcoal is keeping pace
with population growth rates (Arnold et al., 2006).
Despite its high cost (high power requirements, distribution infrastructure and
start-up costs) and levels of poverty in many SSA countries, electricity remains the
main alternative to charcoal at least for urban areas where charcoal is currently the
major fuel and natural gas (also with high distribution and start-up costs), is not read-
ily accessible. However, the signiﬁcance of electricity for cooking is generally low.
128 L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
deprivation. Thus, for any particular location, insights on net effects of
charcoal are needed.
Poverty is a complex notion. Its deﬁnitions have gradually shifted
from narrow, measurement-based ﬁnancial indicators to “soft” broader
deﬁnitions that include notions of welfare, such as the ﬁve-capital
framework (Bebbington, 1999), or sustainable livelihood approaches
which draw out causes and broad categories of poverty (Angelsen and
Wunder, 2003). In this paper, poverty reduction refers to “asituation
where people are becoming measurably better off over time, in absolute
or relative terms” or are “lifted out of poverty” by climbing above a
pre-deﬁned poverty line; poverty prevention relates to conditions
under which people “maintain a minimum standard of living (even
when it is below a given poverty line),” including “insurance and safety
net functions” which cushion and mitigate against poverty; while
poverty alleviation includes both poverty reduction and prevention
(Angelsen and Wunder, 2003: 2). This paper follows a holistic notion
of poverty alleviation based on four dimensions identiﬁed in a World
Bank poverty framework: (i) material deprivation, (ii) poor education
and health, (iii) vulnerability and exposure to risk, and (iv) voicelessness
and powerlessness (World Bank, 2001).
Following the introduction, the second section brieﬂy examines
key historical trends, current status, and future challenges and oppor-
tunities in policies involving charcoal and poverty. Section three
examines (net) economic beneﬁts of both charcoal production and
trading as means to reduce material deprivation for a range of actors
including producers (small, medium, large scale), wholesalers,
retailers, transporters, and forestry and police ofﬁcials. The fourth
section examines the downside of charcoal production, trading, and
use relative to issues of vulnerability and risk/exposure including
environmental degradation, health effects, and social impacts. The
Fig. 1. A. Charcoal production by region of the world: 1961–2010 (millions of tons). B. Charcoal production by region of Africa: 1961–2010 (millions of tons).
Data source: FAOstat, http://faostat.fao.org/site/626/default.aspx#ancor.
129L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
ﬁnal section discusses current and future prospects for charcoal to
effectively provide affordable energy and alleviate poverty while
minimizing negative socio-economic and environmental impacts. It
explores the potential for synergies and win–win scenarios, and con-
cludes with scholarly and policy implications.
Charcoal production policies and poverty in Africa
The major policy challenge is how to meet the growing demand
for charcoal (and ﬁrewood) for the majority of Africa's billion people
while signiﬁcantly supporting livelihoods and contributing to poverty
reduction, without undermining ecological sustainability. Most SSA
countries are ill prepared for this challenge. The literature suggests
that most charcoal production in Africa constitutes unsustainable forest
mining of existing natural woodland stocks. This ultimately undermines
charcoal's poverty-reduction potential. Reasons for over-exploitation in-
clude weak, misguided, neglected, underdevel oped, disjointed, overly
prohibitive, contradictory or non-existent woodfuel policies and laws,
combined with poor enforcement and regulatory capacity. Many studies
conﬁrm this state of affairs (e.g., Angelsen and Wunder, 2003; Arnold et
al., 2006; Dewees, 1995; Leach and Mearns, 1988; Mugo and Ong, 2006;
Ribot, 1993, 1995; Ribot et al., 2006; World Bank, 2009; Zulu, 2010). A re-
cent study of East African countries showed that only Sudan and Kenya
had explicit policies to promote the sustainable production of
charcoal (Mugo and Ong, 2006). Woodfuel policies were mostly
uncoordinated across relevant sectors including forestry/environment,
energy, agriculture, and ﬁnance or economic development, breeding inef-
ﬁciencies through duplication, omissions, contradictions, uncertainty/
confusion, and lack of focus and political inﬂuence for the sector. Thus,
it is instructive to examine woodfuel policies generically before zeroing
in on charcoal.
Despite the rhetoric of managing forest resources to alleviate poverty,
integration of woodfuel issues in national economic and poverty reduc-
tion policies has been inadequate or tokenistic. Reviews of national pov-
erty reduction plans within Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs),
poverty-reduction blueprints sponsored by the World Bank since 1999,
generally revealed inclusion of forestry/environmental issues but
cause–effe ct, forest(ry)/ pove rty analysis was superﬁcial, unsystematic
or absent. Forestry was treated less as a productive sector and more as
a set of diverse activities supporting other sectors perceived to be more
directly linked to poverty, e.g., agriculture and rural development (Bojö
and Reddy, 2003; Hermosilla and Simula, 2007; Oskanen et al., 2003).
Admittedly, with meager resources to confront more pressing and
urgent priorities including food insecurity, poor health including HIV/
AIDS, poor education, and rampant poverty, woodfuel/conservation in-
vestments appear as a luxury. Sti ll, the status/role of forestry/
woodfuel sectors in poverty alleviation can be enhanced nationally,
by increasing and diss eminating knowled ge of th eir contributions
to p overty reduction effectively, focusing international assistance
on removing poverty-reduction barriers in woodfuel/forest policies,
and helping forestry/woodfuel sectors to effectively make their ca se
with ﬁnance minist ries (Bird and Dickinson, 2005; Oskanen et al.,
The woodfuel demand/supply situation in SSA has undergone consid-
erable change in the past four decades. Perception has changed from
alarmist (1970s) to indifference (1990s) to reawakening (2000s), and ap-
proaches from large-scale plantations and indigenous forest-protection to
a mix of small-scale tree growing and protection, community manage-
ment, and links to poverty reduction, with limited large-scale woodfuel
production. Doomsday “woodfuel crisis ” narratives of burgeoning
woodfuel demand and deﬁcits, large-scale forest-resource depletion,
rampant environmental degradation and escalating poverty failed to ma-
terialize and were largely debunked as exaggerated or misguided
(Arnold et al., 2006; Dewees, 1989; Leach and Mearns, 1988; Ma hiri
and Howorth, 2001). Consequently, the “woodfuel gap” problem was
signiﬁcantly downgraded (1980s–90s) and investments in forest
resource conservation curtailed (Arnold et al., 2006; World Bank,
Net World Bank lending for forestry projects to Africa nearly
halved from $516 million 1984–89 to $272 1992–99. Global funding
for such projects increased during the same period from $1.97 billion
to $3.5 billion, but the the biggest increase (614%) went to Eastern Eu-
rope and Central As ia regions (Lele et al., 2000). A review attributed
these funding reductions, poor integration of forestry issues into the
World Bank's poverty alleviation mission, and country-managers'
perception of forestry investments as high risk low payoff, to the
Bank's failure in meeting deforestation and poverty reduction goals of
its 1991 forestry strategy (Lele et al., 2000: 40).
Woodfuel policies in SSA have focused on supply enhancement,
demand management, and market interventions, but less on poverty
reduction. The declining interest/investment has undermined
large-scale plantation development, resulting in heavy dependence
on largely unsustainable woodfuel production from existing indigenous
wood stocks despite attempts to regulate and limit wood extraction and
reduce deforestation through policing, wood/charcoal licensing or
trading bans, and promotion of alternative private and smallholder
tree growing (SEI, 2002; Wunder, 2001; Zulu, 2010). Most of these
regulations have been overly restrictive and unsuccessful, and have
sometimes had the opposite effect (Campbell et al., 2007; Zulu, 2010).
Meanwhile, politically convenient misdiagnosis of woodfuel as the
main course of deforestation gave woodfuels a negative image while
deforestation continued largely via forest conversion to agriculture —
the bigger cause (Dewees, 1995; Geist and Lambin, 2002). Woodfuel
demand-management strategies have sought to reduce woodfuel use
and perverse environmental impacts generically by 1) policing/
restricting indigenous forest use in deﬁcit areas and 2) promoting alter-
native energy source development, and 3) for charcoal speciﬁcally, by
enhancing the efﬁciency of production kilns, household charcoal and
wood stoves, and industrial wood-burning technology. Many SSA gov-
ernments have also intervened in woodfuel markets by underpricing
wood for social welfare purposes of making both charcoal and ﬁrewood
more affordable to the urban poor, which undermines the dual goals of
natural-resource based poverty reduction and sustainable woodfuel
production via ﬁnancial incentives for tree growing and indigenous
forest conservation (Dewees, 1989, 1995; LTS International and ONF
International, 2011; SEI, 2002). Although poverty alleviation is often
stated as a woodfuel production goal, forest management including
smallholder-tree growing interventions often fails to effectively link
farmers to markets.
The widespread adoption of community-based forest management
(CBFM) approaches including joint or co-management of public forests
in most SSA countries since the 1990s (FAO, 1999) offers considerable
opportunities for enhancing charcoal-based poverty reduction because
of their potential to more deeply reach into communities, and to be
more locally relevant, pro-poor, equitable, and more just than top–
down government approaches (Agrawal, 2005; Blaikie, 2006; Ribot,
1999). CBFM is a paradigm shift wherein governments devolve the
legal authority and rights for the management and sustainable use of
forest resources from top–down, centralized control to bottom–up
management by organized communities which have local institutions,
economic incentives, and the primary authority for implementation,
guided by a forest management plan that has been mutually accepted
by key stakeholders (CBNRM Net, 2008).
However, evidence of causal links between CBFM and sustained
forest management remains sparse, as Lund et al. (2009) illustrate
in a review of 60 CBFM studies. Many more studies illustrate the for-
midable challenges in making CBFM successful (e.g., Campbell et al.,
2001; Pagdee et al., 2006; Poteete and Ostrom, 2008; Zulu, 2006,
2008). In a rare exception, 15 villages in Tanzania have relatively
Current consensus is of localized woodfuel deﬁcits radiating from cities, but some
scholars decry the scaling back of investment as premature and suggest that the
woodfuel crisis is returning (Mwampamba, 2007).
130 L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
successfully regulated forest utilization via local licensing of charcoal
production, and have harvested less than annual forest growth and
collected adequate revenues for forest-management with an 18% sur-
plus to fund local community services and development in a largely
accountable manner (Lund and Treue, 2008). However, the poor were
disproportionately impoverished and subjected to coercive treatment,
and long-term sustainability remained uncertain. Other studies conﬁrm
the capture of devolved commercial rights by local and external elites
(Post and Snel, 2003; Ribot, 1993, 1995, 1999) and forest bureaucracies
that marginalize local people (Blaikie, 2006; Larson and Ribot, 2007;
Ribot et al., 2006; Zulu, 2010). Continual deforestation and forest frag-
mentation in many densely populated countries limit the capacity of
CBFM for signiﬁcant and sustained charcoal production (Zulu, 2010).
On the supply side, factors that undermine sustainable forest man-
agement also undermine charcoal-based poverty reduction. Given
current limitations and largely unproven long-term potential of
CBFM approaches, it is counterproductive to discount alternative
interventions including large-scale plantations, natural forest based
production, forest co-management, and private production of char-
coal, which together expand opportunities for charcoal-based poverty
reduction (LTS International and ONF International, 2011). Studies
also highlight the importance of charcoal production from trees out of
forests in agrarian landscapes, including agroforestry, in West Africa
(Amanor and Brown, 2006; Ribot, 2002). In Malawi, up to 40% of
woodfuel sources were from such trees (Dewees, 1995; Openshaw,
1997). Other promising policy options include charcoal production
from co-management based public or protected forests (Zulu, 2010),
hybrid institutional arrangements that combine community and
household-level charcoal production from plantations (e.g., Madagascar
(World Bank, 2009)). Communities organized into charcoal associations
have enhanced orderly charcoal production and trading and producers'
bargaining power in charcoal trading and purchase of wood from gov-
ernment plantations in Sudan (Mugo and Ong, 2006).
In sum, charcoal (and ﬁrewood) policies in most African countries
are relatively neglected and too disjointed and inadequate to address
the triple challenge of reliable charcoal (and ﬁrewood) supply, environ-
mental sustainability and poverty reduction. More broadly, “change
that would support poverty alleviation for forest-based communities
requires a radical rethinking of forest policy so as to counterbalance
widespread regressive policies and structural asymmetries” (Larson
and Ribot, 2007:189).
Charcoal production, trading and incomes in Africa
Widespread use of charcoal as both a source of income and as a
cooking fuel has numerous implications for poverty alleviation
throughout SSA. The World Bank (2001) framework for understanding
poverty is used here to examine both the positive and negative impacts
of charcoal production, trading and use on poverty through the four
dimensions of the framework (i.e., (i) material deprivation, (ii) poor
education and health, (iii) vulnerability and exposure to risk, and
Material deprivation: charcoal and poverty alleviation through income
The literature suggests three main marketing channels for the pro-
duction and trading of charcoal (Kambewa et al., 2007; Ribot, 1993,
1995; SEI, 2002). The direct marketing channel involves small-scale
producers selling directly to consumers. The wholesale marketing
channel involves intermediaries who buy charcoal from small-scale
producers and deliver it to consumers for sale. The wholesale-retail
marketing channel is more complex; where intermediaries buy char-
coal from producers and sell it to secondary intermediaries who
transport and package the charcoal for sale to consumers in retail
markets. This channel is more common in larger urban areas, and
often involves politically connected urban-based traders (Ribot,
1993, 1995; World Bank, 2009).
The market for charcoal has been described as dispersed, poorly
developed, and weakly regulated (Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003;
World Bank, 2009). Limited capacity to enforce regulations and col-
lect tax revenues, further undermined by corruption at checkpoints
along charcoal transport routes, undercut producer net incomes and
government revenues that could be used in poverty reduction
(Kambewa et al., 2007; World Bank, 2009). However, the charcoal
economy is extensive and links to numerous enterprises, and sup-
ports livelihoods in urban and rural areas. Stable urban demand for
charcoal, ease of access to forest resources (partly due to poor en-
forcement of regulations), and low initial investment costs attract
large numbers of people to engage in the commercial production
and sale of charcoal (Arnold et al., 2006; Ellegàrd and Nordström,
2003). As such, the charcoal trade plays an important role in poverty
alleviation in both rural and urban areas throughout SSA.
The primary actors in the charcoal value chain are producers,
wholesalers, retailers, and transporters. The vast majority are farmers
who are engaged in charcoal production in addition to agriculture by
producing charcoal from trees felled during land clearing. The char-
coal market plays a signiﬁcant role in generating seasonal and
full-time employment in regional value chains. Studies of the charcoal
value chain have identiﬁed six direct types of employment in
the charcoal market (Kambewa et al., 2007; Osemeobo and Njovu,
• Large-scale commercial production, which employs many laborers
• Casual production, which employs rural farmers in small-scale pro-
• Wholesale trade, which employs intermediaries (or “middle-men”)
• Packaging, which employs packagers and sellers of jute (ﬁber) bags
and grain sacks
• Transportation, which employs truck drivers and bicycle transporters,
• Retail sale, which employs both large- and small-scale retailers
In certain cases, multiple functions are performed by the same peo-
ple; for example, packaging may be performed by charcoal producers
themselves, by employees of wholesale traders, or by bicycle trans-
porters. A study of the value chain of charcoal in Malawi found that
the cost structure of charcoal production varied, with the packaging
and production functions representing 27% to 33% of the ﬁnal value,
retailers representing 24% to 33%, and transporters representing 20%
to 25%. Other costs included private taxes (i.e., bribes) paid to public
ofﬁcials and retail market fees (Kambewa et al., 2007).
Charcoal production – which typically involves cutting big trees
into smaller logs and burning them in an earthen kiln – is primarily
the work of men and older boys in rural villages. The charcoal is pri-
marily meant for sale rather than use, as village wives are usually
expected to collect branchwood for ﬁrewood for their own cooking
and heating (Chileshe, 2005). Charcoal production enhances social
and economic security in rural areas, and is an important source of
non-farm income for some households which burn and sell charcoal
for cash to buy grains and other household commodities when food
supplies run low in the off-season. Often farmers clear land of trees
for crop farming, and convert the wood into charcoal for sale. Thus,
investment costs for charcoal production are low, and in some
cases, returns on investment are reported to be high (Osemeobo
and Njovu, 2004). However, net gains can be negative if the costs of
labor, wood and other raw materials and opportunity costs are
included. A cost-beneﬁt analysis of charcoal production in a Miombo
woodland in eastern Tanzania produced a negative net present value
A study in Mozambique suggests 2585 ha as the minimum forest size needed for
silviculturally sustainable charcoal production under CBFM (Herd, 2007). Many peri-
urban areas lack such forest expanses.
131L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
(NPV) of US$868 per hectare (Luoga et al., 2000). Still, charcoal produc-
tion, distribution, and sale provide lucrative opportunities to support
rural livelihoods and household income, particularly in the agricultural
off -season (Chileshe, 2005; Osemeobo and Njovu, 2004). The impli-
cations of the charcoal economy for rur al livelihoods may be signiﬁ-
cant given the prevalence of charcoal us e and high rural poverty
Charcoal is produced in Africa throughout the year, although there
are seasonal variations. Production is highest during the rainy season,
primarily because of higher demand; ﬁrewood is less useful when it is
wet and electrical power is less reliable during the rains for the rela-
tively few who can afford to use it for cooking. The resulting higher
prices during the rainy season also attract rural households to charcoal
production as a coping strategy against food insecurity (Kambewa et
al., 2007). The charcoal market also offers opportunities for urban
households to participate through the formation of small-scale retail
businesses (Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003) as well as in packaging
and transportation (Kambewa et al., 2007). Studies of market partici-
pation have found that most of those engaged in the charcoal trade did
not have alternative income-generation opportunities (Arnold et al.,
2006; Openshaw, 1997; SEI, 2002; World Bank, 2009). This under-
scores the economic importance of charcoal for rural producers even
though actual proceeds are generally inadequate to lift households
out of poverty (Wunder, 2001).
The primary beneﬁt of charcoal production by rural farmers is for
income generation, which underscores its importance for livelihood
sustenance, alleviation of poverty and material deprivation given
the lack of alternative income opportunities, especially during the
off-season. Studies have found that the net annual income from char-
coal production compares favorably with the mean income earned by
maize farmers (Osemeobo and Njovu, 2004). In most cases, the casual
charcoal producer is also a maize farmer, who uses the money earned
from the sale of charcoal to support farming activities in terms of seed
and fertilizer procurement and land preparation. Participants in the
charcoal market tend to be poorer individuals who work as small-
scale producers or traders, and have limited alternatives for earning
a living. In such cases, charcoal production can have important
trickle-down effects and prop up small local businesses including
bicycle (important form of transport) repairers, restaurants, bars,
produce markets and traders (Zulu and Kalipeni, 2009).
Casual participation in the charcoal market is relatively common
among rural farmers for several reasons. In addition to easy wood
access and entry (low initial investment costs beyond own labor),
charcoal production helps bridge seasonal gaps in income for farmers
and helps generate working capital after clearing land in preparation
for planting at the start of a new agricultural year. Charcoal also
provides a “safety net” in times of hardship (Arnold et al., 2006;
Shackleton and Shackleton, 2004) or in years marked by low crop
yields to sustain their households. Participation in the charcoal market
often ﬂuctuates inversely with agricultural and urban labor markets;
that is, the number of people involved in woodfuel markets has been
found to increase when crop income falls and when urban job oppor-
tunities shrink (Arnold et al., 2006).
In urban areas, charcoal provides income opportunities through
small retail businesses. In addition to income generation, charcoal
also provides secondary social beneﬁts in terms of employment,
income distribution, and social stability. A study investigating the
areas supplying charcoal to three southern African cities found that
about 240,000 people were involved as producers, transporters, or
retailers in these activities, which provided upwards of 70% of their
cash income (SEI, 2002). Charcoal also supports employment for
charcoal stove producers, traders, and scrap metal collectors and
traders in urban areas (
World Bank, 2009).
As a major commercial activity in and near forested areas, charcoal
provides income, employment and social stability across all wealth
strata. However, the beneﬁts and power are not shared equally across
the value chain. In some cases, rural farmers are exploited by inter-
mediaries to keep charcoal prices low, to the beneﬁt of the wholesale
traders. To entice producers, wholesale traders from urban areas pro-
vide farmers credit or cash advances to meet their needs during the
off-season for crop farming, and they help farmers to secure neces-
sary permits for production (Osemeobo and Njovu, 2004). In addition
to its potential role in alleviating rural poverty, the charcoal trade
provides income opportunities in urban areas through micro- and
small-scale retail enterprises that include women (Ellegàrd and
Nordström, 2003; IEA, 2002). Poor households are more likely to be
involved in the sale of charcoal and other forest products, in part
because of material deprivation and the lack of alternative livelihoods
(Shackleton and Shackleton, 2006).
Material deprivation: urban poverty alleviation through energy provision
While charcoal is the main source of cooking fuel for most urban
households, it is particularly vital for poor households who lack alter-
native sources. In most countries in eastern and southern Africa, over
90% of urban households use charcoal to some extent (IEA, 2002). A
study of the charcoal markets in southern African cities found that
consumption of charcoal grew during 1990–2000 by about 80%
in both Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, with the proportion of households
in the latter reporting charcoal as their principal fuel increasing from
about 50 to 70% over the same period (SEI, 2002). Thus, although
charcoal is preferred over ﬁrewood, dependence on charcoal as a
cooking fuel and the relatively poor energy services and opportunities
it offers are related to poverty (material deprivation) because most
urban households cannot afford modern, alternative cooking fuels
(Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003; Kambewa et al., 2007).
Lower-income households generally consume more charcoal per
capita, but wealthier households also use charcoal. Although wealthier
households tend to use more charcoal, total expenditure on charcoal
has been found to be similar among lower-income and higher-income
households (Akpalu et al., 2011). Lower-income households often
pay a higher price per kilogram for charcoal because they buy it in
smaller packages; wealthier households will typically purchase larger
quantities for a lower price per kilogram. Furthermore, households in
poorer high-density areas generally pay a higher price per bag than
households in wealthier low-density areas (Kambewa et al., 2007).
Rapid population growth, urbanization and improved incomes are
generally associated with decreases in ﬁrewood use and increases in
charcoal consumption (Arnold, et al., 2006), but persistently low
household incomes in SSA mean that woodfuel demand will also in-
crease in the short to medium term because even as some households
move up to charcoal, not enough are moving up in the energy ladder
beyond charcoal to alternative fuels to offset aggregate woodfuel-
demand increases. Thus, per capita consumption of ﬁrewood has
been declining while charcoal consumption is increasing in importance
(Whiteman et al., 2002). The growth rate in charcoal consumption in
Africa between 1990 and 2000 was roughly double that of ﬁrewood
consumption (Arnold et al., 2006). Charcoal prices have been surpris-
ingly stable at around 10 US cents ($0.10) per kilogram for the past
couple of decades (Ellegàrd and Nordström, 2003), and the demand is
assumed to be price inelastic (Chomitz and Grifﬁths, 2001; Zein-
Most analyses of woodfuel demand have estimated negative
income elasticities (Arnold et al., 2006; Hughes-Cromwick, 1985;
Shackleton and Shackleton, 2006), implying that households will con-
vert to modern fuels with an increase in income. However, charcoal is
frequently the “transition fuel” to which households switch ﬁrst when
they move away from ﬁrewood. In practice, the income elasticity of
demand for charcoal changes as income changes; speciﬁcally, income
elasticity of charcoal demand will decrease as income increases, turn-
ing negative at the uppermost strata (Hughes-Cromwick, 1985; IEA,
2010; Zein-Elabdin, 1997). Therefore, both ﬁrewood and charcoal
132 L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
are assumed to be “normal” goods for lower-income households
and “inferior” goods for higher-income households, meaning that
the income elasticities of demand become negative as income
increases. However, urban households are generally more likely to
use charcoal due to wood scarcity, thus the switch to an inferior
good occurs at a higher income level for charcoal users (Arnold et al.,
Negative impacts of charcoal production on poverty
Despite the potential for charcoal to contribute to poverty alleviation
and ease the effects of material deprivation, several negative impacts of
charcoal production and dependence have been noted. Excessive
extraction of forest resources for fuel threatens the sustainability and
integrity of forest ecosystems that underpin the very livelihood oppor-
tunities that support poverty alleviation and food security (Richardson,
2010). Indoor air pollution from charcoal stoves contributes to respira-
tory infections in children and lung diseases in adults (Akpalu et al.,
2011; Bailis et al., 2005). Charcoal may hinder poverty alleviation in
SSA in three general ways that align with the other three dimensions
of poverty (World Bank, 2001). First, charcoal production increases
vulnerability and exposure to risk by contributing to environmental
degradation through deforestation, soil erosion, and increases in green-
house gas emissions. This environmental degradation may undermine
the beneﬁts of participation in the charcoal market discussed above.
Second, charcoal production and use are related to human health
through negative impacts such as smoke inhalation, lung disease,
injury, and death. Third, the social impacts of charcoal production and
trade may increase voicelessness, particularly for female-headed house-
holds, given the gender-based divisions of labor in the charcoal market
and the implications for energy security. Variations in the legality of
charcoal trading also increase incidence of corruption, exploitation,
arbitrary increases in transaction costs, and marginalization of women
and the poor. These negative impacts of charcoal on poverty alleviation
are expounded in the following sections.
Vulnerability and risk: environmental impacts of charcoal production
Forest ecosystems have a profound impact on rural livelihoods
and food security throughout SSA (Richardson, 2010). Forests support
livelihoods in rural communities through provision of food, fuel, shel-
ter, fodder, medicine and income from sales of these products. Forests
enhance food yields by protecting biodiversity that is essential to
human survival. Forests also supply diverse and vital ecosystem
services to people, including carbon sequestration, waste treatment,
nutrient cycling, pest control, and pollination of crops and other
vegetation. Trees in forests and in agroforestry systems help control
soil erosion and protect cropland and pasture. However, charcoal pro-
duction and demand have contributed to localized deforestation around
numerous African cities, and the associated environmental degradation
and soil erosion have led to lower agricultural productivity (Alem et al.,
2010; Arnold et al., 2006; Kambewa et al., 2007; Luoga et al., 2000;
Mwampamba, 2007; Ribot, 1999; SEI, 2002). Deforestation has also
been associated with disturbances in hydrological cycles that lead to
desertiﬁcation and increased salinity (Richardson, 2010). Deforestation
and environmental degradation threaten forest integrity and ultimately
the sustainable provision of other forest resources and ecosystem ser-
vices upon which poor households depend (Pimentel et al., 1997;
Richardson, 2010). In that sense, the environmental impacts of charcoal
production and trade increase the vulnerability of rural households and
exposure to risks that are associated with poverty.
The rise in fossil fuel prices in the 1970s gave rise to a heightened
concern with energy issues, including an interest in the impact of the
use of wood as a source of energy on a large scale (Arnold et al., 2006;
Eckholm, 1975). Lack of reliable data constrained analysis, and early
estimates focused on the measurement of woodfuel gaps, the margin
by which projected demand exceeded estimated annual growth,
leading to the crisis narratives discussed earlier. One key study estimated
in 1980 that two billion people depended on woodfuel and other bio-
mass, and predicted that by 2000, 2.4 billion people would face acute
woodfuel scarcity due largely to overcutting (DeMontalembert and
Clément, 1983). By the mid-1980s, it became clear that woodfuel short-
ages had not materialized to the extent that was predicted in the studies
of the woodfuel gap, and woodfuel use did not appear to pose as serious
a threat of widespread deforestation (Arnold et al., 2006). However,
more recent studies have noted localized woodfuel scarcities (Ahrends
et al., 2010; Clancy, 2008; Mwampamba, 2007; SEI, 2002). An analysis
of case studies in tropical c ountries found that wood fuel extraction
is an important factor in d eforestation, particularly in areas in Africa
where wood harvesting is prevalent (Chidumayo and Gumbo,
2013–this issue; Geist and Lambin, 2002). A World Bank study of
six countries in West Afr ica found that extraction was a source of
defore station where charcoal production is concentrated (Ninnin,
1994). More recently, wood fuel burning is linked to signiﬁcant con-
tributions to global warming, with lon g-term, broader negative im-
pacts ( e.g., Brocard and Lacaux, 1998 for West Africa and Kutsch et
al., 2011 for Zambia). Thus, th e discrediting of the “woodfuel crisis”
as exaggerated should not provide a fals e sense of security against
real charcoal-driven deforestatio n and environmenta l degradation
that can undermine poverty re duction, just as using charcoal as a
scapegoat for all deforestat ion fails to adequately address the prob-
lem. The ecological integrity of forests is vital to poverty alleviation
in Africa, mostly because of t he dep endence of the poor on forest
resources (Richardson, 2010).
Human health: impacts of charcoal use
Charcoal use can lead to serious health damage from indoor
smoke pollution. Ambient air pollution and personal exposure levels
from cooking with charcoal are high; traditional cooking stoves may
result in exposure to toxic pollutants that pose extreme risks to
human health (Akpalu et al., 2011). Possible effects include respiratory
diseases, such as asthma and acute respiratory infections; obstetrical
problems, such as stillbirth and low birth weight; blindness; and heart
disease (IEA, 2002).
Traditional charcoal stoves emit large amounts
of carbon monoxide and other noxious gasses. Women and children
suffer most because they are exposed to fumes from cooking ﬁres for
the longest periods of time. Studies have found a positive association
between indoor air pollution from cooking stoves and acute lower re-
spiratory infections in children and obstructive lung diseases in adults
(Akpalu et al., 2011; Ezzati and Kammen, 2001). Recent attention has
focused on encouraging use of improved stoves out of increased con-
cern for the need to reduce damage to health from air borne particulates
and noxious fumes associated with the burning of ﬁrewood and char-
coal (and other forms of biomass). The rationale behind improved
stoves is that the fuel efﬁciency of traditional stoves can be raised or
even multiplied by simple modiﬁcations in design in order to reduce
overall woodfuel consumption and consequently reduce deforestation,
and reduce emissions of pollutants, thereby improving public health
(Zein-Elabdin, 1997). A wide range of improved stove designs can be
found, and reported fuel savings vary from 10% to 60% (e.g., Bazile,
2002; Bhattacharya et al., 2002; Maesa and Verbist, 2012).
The ability of improved stoves to engender a signiﬁcant and lasting
reduction in charcoal and ﬁrewood consumption is jeopardized by the
presence of secondary effects, in the form of additional consumption
of woodfuels. This consumption may result from gains in real income
generated by the use of more efﬁcient appliances (income effects), or
Pollutants from combustion of biomass fuels including charcoal have been associ-
ated with more than 1.6 million deaths globally each year, roughly 400,000 in SSA
alone (Bailis, 2005; Ezzati et al., 2002).
133L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
from downward adjustments in charcoal prices following the initial
reduction in fuel requirements (price effects) (Zein-Elabdin, 1997).
Damage to health caused by emissions from stoves may be considered
a low priority issue as compared to health problems related to water
supply and sanitation (Arnold et al., 2006). Additional studies of
household behavior will be needed in order to understand the deter-
minants of adoption and use of improved stoves.
However, other reports suggest that the evidence linking indoor
air pollution to increased respiratory infection is limited, and that
there is currently no convincing evidence that improved stoves lead
to improved health (Arnold et al., 2006; DFID, 2002). Improved stoves
may be most effective in places with low demand elasticities, since it
will encourage households to move up the fuel ladder (Zein-Elabdin,
Substitution among cooking fuels is common across SSA, as in
most other developing regions. Substitution between charcoal and
ﬁrewood is common in rural areas, while LPG and kerosene are
frequently substituted for charcoal in urban households (Akpalu et
al., 2011). A shift from cooking with wood to charcoal reduces the
overall health risk by a factor of more than four. A shift to kerosene
results in a reduction by a factor of six. Using LPG reduces the overall
health risk by a factor of more than 100 (IEA, 2002).
Voicelessness: social impacts of charcoal production and trade
Charcoal enhances or undermines poverty reduction when planned
or incidental elements of its production and trading strengthen or weak-
en the voice, power and independence of individuals. For instance, CBFM
approaches and enabling laws and policies are generally seen as having
the potential to empower local communities and enhance tenure
security, inclusion, user rights and access to forest resources, local
decision-making and capacity for self reliance, equity, and social justice
(Agrawal, 2005; Arnold et al., 2006; Blaikie, 2006; Lele et al., 2000; Lund
and Treue, 2008; Ribot, 1993, 1999, 2002). However, struggle over
access to forest resources (including charcoal production and trading
opportunities) and power relations of domination and marginalization
characterize forest resources management and distributional outcomes
(Agrawal, 2005; Ribot, 1993, 1999; Richardson, 2010; Robbins, 2012;
Zulu, 2008, 2010). Voicelessness, powerlessness and dependency arise
from various sources. These include threats of physical force, arbitrary
exercise of bureaucratic power, corruption and lack of predictability of
state authorities. These factors undermine legal protections of pro-
ducers/traders from exploitation and increase transaction costs, elite
capture, gender inequity, and marginalization of the poor and women
(World Bank, 2001). Exploiting the poor in patron–client relationships
surrounding charcoal production/trading, and unnecessarily burdening
them beyond their ability to utilize new economic opportunities outside
their tight zone of socio-economic security also exacerbate poverty.
Voicelessness and powerlessness also undermine charcoal-based
poverty reduction in other ways linked to materia l deprivation, poor
health, and vulnerability or risk exposure, and can help determine
winners (often the powerful) and losers (usually the poor and
Senegal provides a cl assic case of community voicelessness/
powerlessness over charcoal commercial rights despite ostensibly
ac commodating laws. Although new forest laws (1998) devolved
meaningful powers to communities to manage forest resources, to
license or produce charcoal under a state-controlled quota system,
and to choose not to commercially exploit their forests, the charcoal
sector was really controlled by networks of forestry ofﬁcials and urban
charcoal cartels who exploited village forestry resources despite local
opposition, and employed foreigners to produce the charcoal (and ben-
eﬁt ﬁnancially) while the villagers bore the costs of charcoal-induced
environmental degradation and associated ﬁrewood shortages (Larson
and Ribot, 2007; Ribot, 1998). This also reﬂects the arbitrary use of
bureaucratic power, which includes selective implementation of forest
laws and delaying tactics to deny communities' opportunities for
commercial charcoal production and poverty reduction, as also noted
elsewhere (Ribot et al., 2006; Zulu, 2010).
Restrictions on legal charcoal production and trading in some African
countries not only reduce income-generation and poverty-reduction
opportunities, but by driving charcoal into the informal sector, they
also expose small-scale producers to mistreatment, physical violence,
seizure of their produce and/or bicycles, and extortion by corrupt police
and forestry ofﬁcials, thereby increasing transaction costs and reducing
net incomes (Kambewa et al., 2007; SEI, 2002; World Bank, 2009; Zulu,
2010). Power differentials in the value chain also affect distribution of
charcoal proﬁts. A recent analysis in Tanzania shows that a few interme-
diaries (transporters and wholesalers) retained half of total proﬁts
while producers shared only a third and urban retailers (including
women) received only 17% (World Bank, 2009). Poverty and poor/lack
of organization undermined the negotiating power of independent
producers and ability to retain a larger share of charcoal's market
value relative to transporting and wholesaling elites (often organized
into informal trading cartels). This scenario repeats itself elsewhere,
such as in Malawi (Kambewa et al., 2007; MARGE, 2009; Zulu, 2010),
and ultimately undermines poverty reduction strategies. Interventions
should include measures informed by value-chain analysis to help
small producers and retailers retain more of the charcoal value, e.g., by
removing some middlemen or organizing producers into associations
to enhance their bargaining power.
Impacts of helplessness and added risk extend to health and safety.
Charcoal production and transportation also have a physical toll
including injury. In southern Malawi, subsistence charcoal producers
and small-scale traders would transport 40–75 kg of charcoal manually
or by bicycle for up to 18 h and distances of up to 40–50 km to urban
residential areas where they sold their charcoal (Zulu and Kalipeni,
2009). Even then, in the context of a ban on charcoal trading, the
producers/traders risked losing their charcoal and suffered emotional
and “physical abuse at the hands of armed forest-patrol teams which
Charcoal and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa.
The table shows the positive and negative impacts of charcoal production and trading on the World Bank's (2001) four dimensions of poverty.
Dimensions of poverty Support for poverty alleviation Negative effects on poverty
Material deprivation Income generation
Affordable (urban) and renewable source of energy
Tax revenues enhance GDP, fund
poverty reduction, conservation
Potentially unsustainable dependency
Labor diversion threatens food security
Vulnerability and exposure to risk Socio-economic safety net
Reliable fuel (urban users)
Deforestation, loss of ecosystem services
Health and education Burns cleaner than ﬁrewood, crop residues Disease and death from pollution
Physical injury from production, transport
Voicelessness and powerlessness Empowerment and equity, e.g. under CBFM Elite capture of use rights, market power
Marginalization of the poor
Shifts greater share of farm labor to women
134 L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
sporadically impounded the illegal charcoal and their bicycles” (p. 264).
Most producers, average age 38, said they stayed in charcoal produc-
tion/trading out of desperation.
Prospects of and limits to charcoal production as a tool for poverty
A review of the charcoal/poverty literature shows that charcoal
production and trading offer many win–win opportunities and can
help to alleviate poverty at multiple scales: enhanced government
revenues from charcoal licensing and taxation and signiﬁcant contri-
bution to GDP nationally, meeting productive energy needs in urban
areas inexpensively and potentially sustainably, and increasing
household incomes in both rural and urban areas while providing
incentives for tree growing and conservation. In particular, the
reviewed literature suggests that legalized and regulated charcoal pro-
duction can help to enhance net positive poverty-alleviation outcomes
for a larger number of participants in the charcoal value chain, particu-
larly the rural poor, although more empirical supporting evidence is
required. However, the relationship between charcoal and poverty is
complex and there are limits to charcoal-based poverty alleviation —
see Table 1 for a summary of positive and negative impacts along the
four dimensions of poverty (World Bank, 2001). The best-case scenario
for the majority of beneﬁciaries is the continual supplemental role of
charcoal as a “safety net” that rarely lifts people out of poverty . Despite
its seasonal and supplemental nature, charcoal provides locally signiﬁcant
income in otherwise economically depressed and poor peri-urban areas,
and provides potential synergies for further poverty reduction. Charcoal
proceeds are often used to buy agricultural inputs and can enhance agri-
cultural productivity and food security. Charcoal incomes often provide
“seed” money (capita l) for alternativ e income generat ing activities, and
have other positive downstream economic effects in producing areas.
For most urban dwellers, the use of charcoal for energy provides
potential savings in energy expenditures relative to the growing
costs of petroleum-based alternatives (LPG and kerosene) and elec-
tricity (costly, unreliable, and many houses are not connected to it).
The savings can be used for other household needs. Policies that formal-
ize charcoal production and trading will provide more employment and
income opportunities to urban charcoal retailers (including women),
transporters and wholesalers and small-scale charcoal-stove producers.
Charcoal also represents a signiﬁcant improvement in the quality of en-
ergy services over ﬁrewood and crop residues. However, for the major-
ity of users, charcoal's role in the short-medium term is essentially the
maintenance of the status quo rather than reduction of material and en-
ergy poverty, while still providing a small proportion of urban dwellers
the pathway to transition up the energy ladder to cleaner fuels and ‘su-
perior’ energy services based on improved household incomes.
Charcoal production, trading and use also have negative impacts
on poverty reduction. Production causes localized but growing circles
of deforestation and environmental degradation around urban areas –
charcoal's “urban ecological footprint” (Clancy, 2008) – which ulti-
mately undermines ecosystem services including elements of agricul-
tural productivity and increases the vulnerability of poor farmers to
food and livelihood insecurity. Charcoal production also undermines
agricultural productivity by diverting male labor (since charcoal is a
predominantly men's activity) from agriculture, while at the same
time overburdening women with food growing in attempts to make
up for the labor gap, thereby reinforcing or exacerbating gender ineq-
uities that undermine the economic independence and voices of
women. In urban areas, charcoal-burning air pollution causes illness
and death among users, especially women and children. This weakens
the productive and poverty-reduction potential of household mem-
bers. Finally, the lack of negotiating power and voice among indepen-
dent charcoal producers and retailers allows concentration of the
share of the market value of charcoal in the hands of a few powerful,
politically connected, urban-based transporters and wholesalers.
Cartel-like networks of forestry ofﬁcials, urban and local elites often
control access to forest resources and charcoal markets, and marginalize
or exploit rural communities while saddling them with the resulting
costs of environmental degradation. Policy interventions should be evi-
dence based including measures informed by value-chain analysis to
help small-scale producers and retailers retain more of the charcoal
value, e.g., by removing some middlemen or organizing producers into
associations to enhance their bargaining power (as in Mugo and Ong,
The reviewed literature also shows continuing growth in urban
charcoal demand with rapid population growth, urbanization and
increasing costs of alternative fuels, and afﬁrms the dominance of
charcoal in SSA countries' energy balance in the coming few decades
(e.g. IEA, 2002, 2010). Anticipated fuel switching from woodfuels to
more ‘modern’ energy sources under the energy transition hypothesis
(Zein-Elabdin, 1997) is not straightforward in SSA. It is proceeding at
a slower pace than anticipated given persistently high levels of poverty
(affordability), structural problems with access to main alternatives
(LPG, kerosene and electricity), and cultural factors. Findings therefore
point to an incomplete transition and continued dependence on char-
coal within a fuel mix in the foreseeable future (Chambwera and
Folmer, 2007; Hiemstra-van der Horst and Hovorka, 2008; Hosier and
Dowd, 1987; Martins, 2005; Masera et al., 2000; Zulu, 2010). Thus it is
time for African governments to remove their heads out of the sand
and proactively reform charcoal policies and laws to promote regulated,
sustainable production and trading of charcoal.
Charcoal and poverty issues are complex and require multi-faceted
and integrated approaches both on the production and demand side.
Current policies in most SSA countries are lacking, disjointed across
relevant sectors, or too restrictive (e.g., charcoal bans) and inadequate
to address the triple challenge of reliable charcoal (and ﬁrewood) pro-
duction and supply, environmental sustainability (including charcoal
based government revenues for conservation), and poverty reduction.
There is a need for radical rethinking to promote pro-poor and
pro-sustainability charcoal policies that are coordinated across rele-
vant sectors (e.g., forestry, agriculture, water, energy, micro-ﬁnance,
trade, and ﬁnance or economic development), remove restrictions to
regulated commercial charcoal production and provide appropriate,
graduated economic incentives and penalties to ensure clearly deﬁned
and veriﬁable sustainability as an important start. Further, legalization
or formalization of charcoal production, distribution and trading
would not only expand economic opportunities for poverty reduction,
but would also minimize arbitrary use of bureaucratic power, incen-
tives for corruption, and mistreatment of charcoal producers and
traders. Limited state capacity to implement charcoal policy, including
regulated sustainable production, bureaucratic inertia and structural
inequities and land-tenure insecurities are other challenges that
require addressing. However, caution is required lest the reforms are
too hurried for current implementation capacity and make matters
worse. Charcoal policy innovations should also address the negative
and politically controversial image of charcoal through concerted
and targeted evidence-based advocacy highlighting the woodfuel
sector's beneﬁts as an important productive economic sector deserving
higher prominence in key economic development blueprints, including
Ultimately, there are no policy panaceas. A plurality of ﬂexible
carefully targeted and locally appropriate approaches (including
CBFM and co-management) integrated around the issue of charcoal
and poverty reduction is the way forward. For instance, properly
targeted, implemented, and scaled up, CBFM that devolves meaningful
levels of authority to communities offers a unique opportunity to
expand commercial utilization rights to communities, enhance property
rights, address issues of equity, while enhancing the combined potential
for sustained forest management, charcoal production and poverty
reduction. However, CBFM has limitations. It has to be supplemented
with promotion of private tree growing (within and off farms), larger-
135L.C. Zulu, R.B. Richardson / Energy for Sustainable Development 17 (2013) 127–137
scale plantations (e.g., Sudan, Mugo and Ong., 2006), and co-
management or concessionary arrangements in indigenous public
forests (LTS International and ONF International, 2011; World Bank,
2009; Zulu, 2010) in a multi-faceted approach to expand supply and
income opportunities. However, how charcoal supply, poverty reduc-
tion and forest conservation goals can be made compatible in practice
requires further research. Integrated policies that create synergies
among woodfuel production, sustainable forest management, and pov-
erty reduction are needed.
The uniquely long gestation periods to produce wood (tree growing,
forestry) for charcoal is already economically unattractive and there is
need for appropriate incentives. To start with, on the demand side, gov-
ernments should confront the politically risky yet essential measured
removal of wood under-pricing policies and other market imperfections
in order to reﬂect the true value of charcoal, which will act as an incen-
tive for investment in more sustainable production of charcoal. Promo-
tion of appropriate and more efﬁcient charcoal production kilns along
with more effective control of indigenous forest harvesting would also
help reduce the amount of wood used, lower production costs and pro-
mote conservation. Promotion of the use of more efﬁcient charcoal
stoves in urban areas would produce energy savings that would at
least partly compensate for anticipated charcoal-price increases and
the higher wood use per tonne of charcoal produced relative to a tone
of ﬁrewood. The resulting reduction of the negative impacts of charcoal
use and production would make potential improvements in charcoal-
based rural and urban employment more signiﬁcantly positive in
terms of poverty reduction because there would be fewer negative
impacts (World Bank, 2009). Overall, considerable enhancement in
institutional capacity (ﬁnancial, human, technical) and donor support
will be required for the effective regulation of the charcoal trade and
the gradual but necessary step of bringing the largely informal charcoal
sector into the formal, tax-based economy to expand economic oppor-
tunities, poverty reduction, and contribute revenues to regulate sustain-
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