Can we solve Tanzania’s big charcoal question one small answer at a time?

'Earth-mound' charcoal production. US-PD.


Tanzania has enormous potential for a diversified renewable energy future.  Today however, when you talk about energy in Tanzania you’re talking mainly about wood fuels.  Only 14% of households in the country have access to electricity, and over 90% of the total energy consumed in Tanzania is biomass – wood & charcoal used for cooking (i). 

Tanzanians consume about 1,000,000 tons of charcoal per year, the vast majority of which is produced using an archaic and extremely inefficient ‘earth mound’ technique  - i.e. a pile of dirt on a pile of smoldering wood that emits notorious and noxious greenhouse gases for days on end.  It takes roughly six and half tons of wood to produce one ton of charcoal by this method.  A single ton of smouldering wood in turn pollutes roughly 700,000 cubic meters of air (ii) - that’s more than twice as much as you will breath in your entire lifetime!  What’s worse, roughly 700 acres of forest are cleared every day in Tanzania to feed these smouldering charcoal mounds.


Fresh batch of 'earth mound' charcoal - Pemba Island, Tanzania


The Tanzanian government has made several attempts to ban charcoal outright, but to no avail.  Prohibiting something so essential to daily life without providing the right alternatives and a chance to transition is pretty unreasonable.  Could you imagine being told to stop using your primary source of energy overnight, cold turkey?  Stop using your home and everything in it - today.  Oh yeah, and everyone whose job relies on supplying you with that energy - they’re out of work too.  Society needs to align itself with environmental limits, no question, but it’s like turning a big boat; we need time and plenty of safe space to manoeuvre if we’re going to pull off a safe transition.

Community Forests International has learned firsthand that supporting the process of change can be as important as having a clear vision of the future we want to create.  So, how do we best support Tanzanians as they navigate the transition to a diverse and clean energy future?  What are the simple alternatives to traditional charcoal that can be adopted today; the technology ‘bridges’ that will support society’s deeper transformations into the future? CFI has explored these questions critically and come up with a few solutions that we feel are worth spreading.

Two of these solutions have been successfully piloted in Pemba, Tanzania already and are described here:  Biomass Briquettes & Fuel Efficient Cookstoves.  Another is the so-called Improved Charcoal Production System (ICPS) or ‘Adam Retort ®’ kiln, a technology that we hope to introduce to Pemba later this year.


Adam Retort ® kiln, Mali.  NOTS: Energie Renouvelable 2011.


Compared to the old-school ‘earth mound’ technique, this low-cost retort kiln doubles production efficiency!  That means it takes half as much wood to produce the same amount of charcoal; and in turn half as much forest to supply Tanzania’s demand for charcoal.  Additionally, the ICPS cuts production time in half and reduces emissions by up to 75% (iii) - i.e. no more piles of wood smoldering for days on end and polluting immense volumes of air.  This same technology may also be used to convert agricultural and manufacturing wastes to char, a powdery substance composed primarily of carbon.  Char can be pressed into a charcoal-substitute using the briquette press technology mentioned above, or mixed with organic compost to produce ‘biochar’ - a powerful agricultural amendment that boosts productivity while sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil.

Community Forests International plans to work directly with traditional charcoal producers to introduce the retort kiln technology to Pemba.  It is hoped that this effort will improve local practices and reduce pressure on the already overburdened forests and climate.  Some may view this approach as simply aiding and abetting the people who make a living turning forests into cooking fuel, supporting a deleterious practice that should be banned outright.  Undeniably, we are talking about improving the efficiency of charcoal producers and in turn the profitability of their trade.  What do you think?  Is there a better approach, or is this type of transitioning our best hope of bridging the gap between the unsustainable present and an abundant future?


For the keeners, here’s a very informative video about Tanzania’s charcoal question:


(i) National Climate Change Strategy.  United Republic of Tanzania Vice President’s Office – Division of Environment.  2012  (pp.15).

(ii,iii) Improved and more environmentally friendly charcoal production system using a low-cost retort–kiln (Eco-charcoal). Elsevier Renewable Energy 34.  2009.  J.C. Adam. (pp. 1922, 1923)

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