Tanzania: A new way to produce charcoal serves communities and protects forests (TheWorld)

| May 30, 2022

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Rashidy Kazeuka is a charcoal producer in central Tanzania’s Kilosa district. He says he never paid attention to things like wildlife or watersheds. He just went into the forest and cut every tree he could find, regardless of size. Now Mr. Kazeuka is part of a sustainable charcoal project that helps rural producers make and sell charcoal in a way that protects Tanzania’s forests. As part of the project, about a square mile of forest in Kilosa is now reserved for charcoal production and the rest is set aside for conservation and beekeeping. The square mile is divided into 24 sections, and one will be cut every year in a 25-year rotation. The most recently cut section has been completely cleared of all but a few valuable fruit trees. But a closer look shows that this isn’t just any clearcut. The stumps are all about two feet high, with tall green shoots sprouting from their tops. This helps the trees survive the cut and regenerate more quickly, as well as preserving the forest’s natural ecology and preventing soil erosion. Mr. Kazeuka and other producers also pay a small fee for each bag they produce, which helps conserve the forest, build clean water systems, construct new school buildings and even support universal healthcare.

A forest cleared for charcoal production is a silent and desolate place. No birds or other wildlife, just a landscape without life.

It’s a sight that Rashidy Kazeuka knows well. Mr. Kazeuka is a charcoal producer in central Tanzania’s Kilosa district. He says he never paid attention to things like wildlife or watersheds. He just went into the forest and cut every tree he could find, regardless of size.

Mr. Kazeuka still produces charcoal in a traditional kiln, but says everything else about his work has changed. Mr. Kazeuka is part of a sustainable charcoal project that helps rural producers make and sell charcoal in a way that protects Tanzania’s forests.

As part of the project, Mr. Kazeuka produces more sustainable charcoal and pays fees to support local services like education and healthcare. He says that he makes more money with the project, and that his family is pleased because his children will have forests in which to carry on his tradition of charcoal production.

The charcoal market is a main contributor to deforestation in Tanzania. About 95% of urban households use charcoal as their primary cooking fuel. By some estimates, the residents of Dar es Salaam alone burn more than 35,000 bags of charcoal every day. This is quickly rising as the city’s population continues to grow.

The charcoal markets of Dar es Salaam demonstrate this growing demand. On a dusty side street, 24-year-old Goddi Mbisa operates his charcoal stand. Hundreds of bags are stacked around him on the ground.

Mr. Mbisa says it’s a good business. Rain or shine, he sells charcoal. 

He says that on a good day he sells 60 or 70 bags at US $1 each, and adds that, in Tanzania, charcoal is a bigger market than coffee and tea combined.

But according to Tanzania Forest Services spokesman Charles Ng’atigwa, there’s one critical problem. More than 70% of the charcoal trade is illegal.

A recent World Bank report estimated that the Tanzanian government is losing about $100 million each year in uncollected revenue from the charcoal sector. But efforts to regulate the sector have proven difficult.

“If you really cut down the production, all of these people (would lose their) livelihoods,” Mr. Ng’atigwa says. “And that would be chaos.”

The government’s new approach focuses on village-owned forests, which account for nearly half of Tanzania’s remaining forests. Until recently, these forests have also been a huge source of black market charcoal.

In Kilosa, about a square mile of forest is now reserved for charcoal production, roughly a tenth of the village’s total woodland reserve. The rest has been set aside for conservation and beekeeping. The square mile has been divided into 24 sections, and one will be cut every year in a 25-year rotation.

The most recently cut section has been completely cleared of all but a few valuable fruit trees. But a closer look shows that this isn’t just any clearcut. The stumps are all about two feet high, with tall green shoots sprouting from their tops.

Over the course of the next 24 years, this small plot will remain untouched while the others are harvested in turn. When it comes time to harvest this plot again, the project organizers hope that it will be completely regenerated. By leaving at least two feet of stump during the charcoal harvest, the trees survive the cut and regenerate more quickly. This also helps to preserve the forest’s natural ecology and prevent soil erosion. 

Peter Mtoro is a project officer at the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, the local organization implementing this project. He says that leaving a stump allows the trees and their root systems to survive, and the forest to completely regenerate.

He adds, “We believe that after 24 years, these trees will be ready again for harvesting.”

As of October 2015, the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group had trained more than 500 producers in eight villages.

Mr. Kazeuka says the project spreads the benefits of charcoal production to the entire community. He and other producers pay a small fee for each bag they produce. So far, this has amounted to more than US $100,000, which is being used in the eight participating villages to conserve the forest, clean water systems, construct new school buildings and, in Mr. Kazeuka’s village, support universal healthcare.

But despite success in the eight participating villages, the product has been slow to catch on because of its higher cost. Illegal charcoal is simply cheaper to produce.

Mr. Mtoro explains: “Most of the people who are using charcoal are not interested in environmental conservation. They’re interested in saving money.”

Mr. Mtoro says the new sustainable charcoal is a better product than the illegal alternative. Charcoal producers participating in the project use an improved earth kiln to produce charcoal more efficiently. The process takes longer than average—about a week—but the end product burns longer and cleaner, says Mr. Mtoto. 

The real challenge, he says, lies in marketing, and getting the word out to the millions of users in Tanzania’s cities—before it’s too late.

This story is based on an article written by Sam Eaton and published TheWorld in October 2015, titled “Tanzania has figured out a way to make charcoal and save trees at the same time.” To read the full story, go to: https://theworld.org/stories/2015-10-23/tanzania-has-figured-out-way-make-charcoal-and-save-trees-same-time

Photo: Rashidy Kazeuka holds a piece of charcoal. Credit: Sam Eaton.