Background - Cooking Energy Crisis

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The Challenge - Cooking Energy at Political Level

In developing countries, cooking energy accounts for about 90% of all household energy consumption. Thus cooking is the most energy intensive activity of those households. For cooking, biomass is the main source of primary energy in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries woodfuel (firewood and charcoal) or agricultural waste account for more than 90% of total energy consumption. The woodfuel sector not only employs tens of thousands of people, it also contributes millions of dollars to local economies in the form of revenues, taxes, and incomes.

However, as biomass and in particular wood energy is seen as “traditional”, it is seldom given high priority in energy policies and poverty alleviation strategies. While White Papers for the power and petroleum sector exist in most countries, there are few similar strategies for the traditional use of biomass in the energy sector, in particular in Eastern and Southern Africa. Some countries have implemented isolated projects to demonstrate action and some have given it new attention by assigning biomass to the “renewables” sector. But in the common case, biomass is regarded as "non-renewable" and - if regulated at all - the political ambition is aiming at substituting biomass rather than making it clean and sustainable.

This change of ministries' attitude from "leaving the biomass energy sector to manage itself" towards "planning for a substitution of biomass as the main fuel" has been triggered by the observation that in many African countries, biomass energy consumption has reached a stage where current supply-demand systems are no longer sustainable. Population growth, urbanization, and the intra biomass transition from firewood to charcoal (in addition to the low efficiency of carbonisation technology) is accelerating this process. In many countries the “fuelwood gap” has become a reality or at least has appeared on the horizon.

This situation has also been aggravated by changes in the "modern energy sector". In some countries, the subsidies on electricity have been removed and prepaid metering has been introduced. In reaction, many households have "moved down the energy ladder" and returned to cooking with charcoal. Similarly, the supply of LPG and Kerosene has experienced shortages and price increases as well, resulting in similar reactions. Hence, the heavy dependence on biomass is not expected to change dramatically over the next couple of decades.

To resolve the problem of unsustainable use of biomass energy, a comprehensive strategy is required. This should focus on options to improve the supply side of biomass fuels, to make the use of biomass energy more efficient, and to identify realistic substitution possiblities where possible. Even if there is sufficient political support for a comprehensive biomass energy strategy, there is commonly a lack of capacity and knowledge for its development. To make matters worse, it requires the collaboration between a variety of departments and ministries (e.g. energy, forestry, environment, agriculture, finance...), which can be a challenge.

Woodfuel Crisis

In many developing countries, forest resources are under threat from overexploitation and land-use change. Consequently, forest product supplies, environmental services (soil protection, water retention, biodiversity conservation, and carbon-sequestration) and social benefits, such as cultural and spiritual values, and the livelihoods of forest-dependent rural populations, are at risk. Forest policy support aims to create framework conditions conducive to sustainable forest management (SFM), in order to mobilise the forestry sector’s full potential regarding forest product supplies and environmental and social benefits.

Against this backdrop, production and marketing of wood-based fuels are widely unregulated and informal, with inevitable consequences, including:

  • Unchecked exploitation in open-access areas, with little regard for reforestation and virtually no investment in woodfuel production
  • Market prices that reflect exploitation costs only
  • Highly inequitable sharing of benefits; while urban traders and freight hauliers realise substantial profits, the government gets no revenues, and rural communities face dwindling firewood supplies.

This situation adversely impacts poverty alleviation policies and puts vulnerable segments of society at risk. In many developing countries, gathering firewood is the task done by women and children, which can be a serious disadvantage to them. Despite this, the mounting woodfuel crisis has not reached high level political attention and may not become an important issue for many years to come. Until women’s workloads become intolerable, affecting rural livelihoods overall, the situation may make no impact on heads of households or community and national leaders. At some point, firewood will get so scarce that rural households may turn to dung and crop residues as alternative sources of fuel. These factors tend to conceal the negative consequences of unsustainable firewood exploitation. By the time action is taken, irreversible destruction of the existing forest cover may have taken place. 

In settlement areas and urban agglomerations, the presence impoverished people with neither land nor any ‘productive’ occupation encourages massive unregulated firewood exploitation as a source of income, which often results in concentric deforestation circles being pushed farther and farther away from the centres of consumption and demand. The trend towards commercialisation of biomass fuels (including more easily transportable loads of charcoal) further exacerbates overexploitation of forest resources. These two factors mask the increasing scarcity of firewood, and the entire system drifts towards inevitable collapse. 

People are generally reluctant to accept prices significantly higher than the exploitation costs and will not tolerate reduced extraction rates until firewood becomes either unavailable or its increasing scarcity provides a strong economic incentive for sustainable woodfuel production. Consequently, sustainable firewood production appears most feasible close to centres of consumption, and/or where forest degradation/deforestation problems can be easily observed. These conditions exist around many urban settlements located in semi-arid zones – such as the Sahel, or in areas of Eastern and Southern Africa.

Wood Energy - Africa's Green Energy Future, A film by GIZ HERA

GIZ Eschborn, 2010
Design: Michael Netzhammer und Jörn Breiholz
Responsible: Lisa Feldmann and Verena Brinkmann, GIZ HERA

The sustainable production of wood as a renewable energy source has huge potential for Africa. The afforestation of degraded landscapes, establishment of wood plantations and the sustainable management of natural forests can all serve to increase energy security, provide access to energy, and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. The GIZ HERA -- Poverty Oriented Basic Energy Services Programme has produced and put together an audio slideshow which promotes the idea of wood energy as a modern and potentially renewable source of energy. It shows examples from different countries where wood is sustainably produced and processed efficiently for energy purposes.

available in

English and French

Wood Energy – renewable, profitable, and modern
Talking points for lobbyists
GIZ Eschborn, 2010
Author: Steve Sepp, ECO Consulting Group
Responsible:  Marlis Kees, GIZ HERA 
I. Seven key-advantages of wood-based fuels
II. Principal challenges
III. Success stories, 1.39 MB (english)

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