Clearing the air: How transforming the charcoal trade can help save Central Africa’s forests

In the developed world, the smell of woodsmoke is often comforting. In Central Africa, however, its scent and haze can be unsettling — visceral evidence of the world’s second-largest tropical forest being slowly but steadily reduced to ash.

This smoke permeates the homes and neighborhoods of Goma, once a sleepy lakeside town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Due to a massive influx of refugees from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, as well as internal migrants fleeing violence in rural areas, Goma’s population has ballooned to over 1 million in only a couple of decades.

On the road linking the city to nearby Virunga National Park, dozens of men drip sweat as they push bicycles and carts laden with unwieldy towers of charcoal sacks. Across the DRC, thousands of people face similar journeys, sometimes trekking for weeks to reach a market and sell the source of their labor. Some are drawn to the work for its high earning potential, while others simply have few other income-generating options.

In a country where only 9 percent of people have access to electricity — often limited to a lone lightbulb or outlet to charge a cell phone — charcoal and firewood still serve as the primary source of cooking fuel, even in the capital of Kinshasa, a megacity of more than 13 million. Charcoal is widely preferred over wood in urban settings, as it burns hotter and is easier to transport due to its condensed size. However, increasing demand from high-populated areas is putting even more pressure on the forest, a situation that could exacerbate the challenges already facing residents of this turbulent region.

To ensure that fuel needs can be met while protecting the DRC’s unique and valuable forests, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — one of the partners within the U.S. government-funded Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) — is working on multiple fronts to reduce demand for this often-destructive resource and to make the industry more sustainable.

A shrinking forest

Trees have been humanity’s trusted fuel source for millennia, yet recent rates of forest loss prove that the supply is by no means inexhaustible. Satellite imagery reveals that in 1987, forest covered more than 60 percent of land in the Virunga landscape. By 2017, that forest cover was down to 43.6 percent.

The region’s insatiable demand for charcoal has been a major factor in this forest loss. A 2015 study found that 56 percent of charcoal being used in North Kivu province (where Goma is located) was sourced illegally from Virunga National Park, Africa’s most biodiverse park which contains some of the most intact forests around. In fact, Virunga’s director has called charcoal the park’s biggest threat.

Continued forest loss here would shrink crucial mountain gorilla habitat (and the tourism industry tied to it); reduce overall forest health, producing fewer animals to hunt and plants to gather; and boost the already high contribution of tropical deforestation to climate change.  

Photo gallery: Fueling Goma

  • smallww1398-1553103489-29.jpg
  • mediumww227-1553104033-36.jpg
  • img8063-1553103417-70.jpg
  • mediumww139-1553105781-82.jpg
  • img8108-1553103456-24.jpg
  • mediumww139-1553106261-25.jpg

The charcoal trade also poses more immediate threats to the people involved. “There were risks we were exposed to, such as women who are exposed to sexual violence in the park, but also men who are exposed to killings and kidnapping,” says Claudine Kafirongo, a member of local fuel-efficient stove network REPROFCA. Indeed, income from the charcoal trade has reportedly financed the activities of different rebel groups in the region, and thus contributed to its continued instability.

“Beyond that, once you get home with the wood, when you start to cook, there’s smoke,” Kafirongo continues. “When it’s sucked in by kids or even adults, we are exposed to coughs and other toxic respiratory diseases in the lungs.” According to the World Health Organization, in 2016 almost 4 million people worldwide died prematurely due to household air pollution.

Effectively shielding the forest — and the people who depend on it — from these threats is a complex goal that development experts and conservationists have been puzzling over for years. Building on that knowledge, WWF is taking a multi-pronged approach to helping communities reduce dependence on wood-based fuel in the DRC. First, make it easier to use less charcoal. And second, when charcoal cannot be avoided, source from more sustainable places.

A better stove

A traditional three-stone cooking fire in Mapati, Republic of Congo. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
A traditional three-stone cooking fire in Mapati, Republic of Congo. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

Most of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who rely on biomass (charcoal, fuelwood and animal dung) as their main source of cooking fuel still use traditional three-stone cooking fires. However, there are better options available. Fuel-efficient cookstoves vary in design, composition and efficiency, but on average they cut the amount of charcoal required to cook a meal in half.

Since 2009, efforts have focused on helping people in and around Goma not only benefit from buying and using these stoves at home, but also from producing the stoves themselves. In rural communities outside the city, residents are trained to manufacture these stoves; usually the women make the clay bases while the men hammer together the stoves’ metal exteriors. These parts are often sold to local associations or distribution networks that then assemble and sell the stoves to consumers.

In other cases, the stoves’ full assembly is done at one site. For example, the company Goma Stove employs more than 30 people in its factory and produces about 2,000 stoves per month — mostly simple, medium-sized models, but also some larger stoves and stove-oven combinations for restaurants, schools, hospitals and other gathering places. Most of the factory’s production equipment is hand-powered, which means the employees can continue to work during the frequent power outages. (Get a glimpse inside the factory in the video below.)

When the stoves are complete, they are sold either in the Goma Stove storefronts downtown, or by the company’s traveling salesmen, who traverse the city neighborhoods hawking the stoves from the back of their motorized tricycles.

The factory is also working to maximize the efficiency of the charcoal-making process to further reduce the need for deforestation. “In a charcoal bag about 10 percent is [charcoal] residue, [which] is thrown in the trash,” says Arsène Kambale Ndungo, who leads marketing and sales for Goma Stove. “Hence the idea came to us to make this charcoal residue valuable.”

Goma Stove built two machines in the company factory that convert these formerly worthless dust (bought back from the consumers) into briquettes, which are then resold. A 40-kilogram bag goes for $10, cheaper than regular charcoal. “These briquettes are more appreciated for cooking foods that take a lot of time on the fire, such as beans, which are among the staple foods of the region,” Ndungo explains.

Goma Stove isn’t the only fuel-efficient stove maker in town; rather, there is a healthy competition between various producers that has led to more stoves in more households. In 2011, 59 percent of surveyed Goma households owned at least one fuel-efficient stove; by 2016, the proportion topped 87 percent.

Graphs produced by World Resources Institute
Graphs produced by World Resources Institute

Between 2009 and 2018, local artisans and associations sold 84,630 improved cookstoves and helped create jobs for 631 people, including 104 men and 527 women. Kafirongo, the stove producer from the REPROFCA network, is one of those women.

“My late husband asked me why I chose this job, because to him it was a ‘dirty’ job,” she reflects. “But when he did not have money for us to eat at home, I took out the money I earned with the improved stoves and bought food. So that’s how he started to change his point of view, and even began to welcome customers when they came to buy the stoves.”

Financial motivations also top the list of reasons for purchasing a fuel-efficient stove. By halving their annual fuel costs, families can instead spend this income on other essential expenses — and because women are usually the ones going to market to purchase the charcoal, they can control what they spend the saved money on. “This money allows us to pay the children’s school fees, health care and other expenses,” says Eveline Kahindo Bilari, a Goma Stove employee who uses one of the company’s stoves at home. (Learn more about what consumers can buy with the money saved in the infographic below.)

Infographic produced by World Resources Institute
Infographic produced by World Resources Institute

Sourcing a ‘greener’ charcoal

Even if all households in North Kivu province used fuel-efficient stoves, the need for charcoal would still exist. By supporting fast-growing tree plantations, the Ecomakala initiative has helped provide a more sustainable source for it.

Through this program, farmers are planting trees on their lands to provide an alternative source material for charcoal. They then sell this “green” charcoal to the Goma Stove factory and local markets at a cheaper price than forest charcoal.

Tree plantation near Virunga National Park. WWF supports the planting of fast-growing tree species as an alternative to illegal charcoal from the park. Cash crops are planted below the trees in the early years to maximize land use and bring in supplemental income. (© Jaap van der Waarde / WWF-Netherlands)
Tree plantation near Virunga National Park. WWF supports the planting of fast-growing tree species as an alternative to illegal charcoal from the park. Cash crops are planted below the trees in the early years to maximize land use and bring in supplemental income. (© Jaap van der Waarde / WWF-Netherlands)

One challenge is that people generally prefer charcoal made from old-growth, hardwood trees, as it is denser and thus burns longer than plantation charcoal. As Ndungo from Goma Stove explains, this preference underscores the need for more local education on the issues. “We have initiated a public awareness campaign, saying that the more we buy the charcoal that comes from the park, the more we are indirectly financing the armed groups that live in the park.”

Ecomakala’s first harvest period was in 2015. As of December 2018, the initiative involved more than 9,730 farmers and covered 11,595 hectares of land in tree plantations. In addition, the charcoal plantation concept has proven so popular that a third-party evaluator estimated that if official Ecomakala plantations are viewed together with imitation projects in the region, the total area supporting tree plantations is at least twice that size.

Besides producing charcoal, these plantations also contribute other benefits, from erosion control to bird habitats. Project leaders continue to learn from past experiences in order to strengthen current projects while developing new initiatives that will focus on planting a range of local tree species that harbor greater biodiversity, improve soil fertility and resist fire more than some species currently prevalent in plantations, such as eucalyptus. Moreover, interspersing charcoal trees with agroforestry varieties will provide farmers with more natural products for subsistence or income generation, including fruit and building materials. These resources can bring more immediate economic benefits while farmers wait for their charcoal trees to mature.

Scaling up solutions

Claudine Biongo, the vice president of a network of local women’s groups in Mbandaka, DRC, with a fuel-efficient stove. With support from WWF, this network is producing and selling these stoves, bringing in household income while reducing the need for forest clearing. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)
Claudine Biongo, the vice president of a network of local women’s groups in Mbandaka, DRC, with a fuel-efficient stove. With support from WWF, this network is producing and selling these stoves, bringing in household income while reducing the need for forest clearing. (Photo by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI)

To curb the threat of deforestation from charcoal for good, a shift to renewable energy sources is critical. Local efforts to expand hydropower and solar energy are still in early stages; therefore, fuel-efficient stoves and charcoal plantations are important intermediate interventions to help reduce pressure on the forest until more sustainable energy alternatives become available. To this end, WWF is currently exploring the potential of alternative energy options such as biogas and geothermal in Goma, while also linking with local private sector partners like GoShop and BBOXX to promote solar power.

Neither fuel-efficient stoves nor tree plantations are new inventions, yet globally they have not yet been adopted at the scale needed to adequately fight deforestation, climate change and health issues linked to charcoal. However, successes in Goma — which received an Energy Globe Award in 2016 — are a promising sign. Goma Stove is now financially independent, and the company’s business acumen is visible to any Goma visitor in its billboards, TV commercials and market stalls.

WWF is now looking to replicate this success elsewhere in the DRC. The organization has extended its support of stove production to three other provinces that are struggling to meet fuel demand, and where fuel-efficient stoves are still a rarity, and is promoting the adoption of this fuel-saving technology in other landscapes.  

As the DRC continues to have one of the highest annual rates of forest loss among tropical countries, viable solutions to protect what remains have never been more urgent. But these solutions will only succeed with local support. Changes, particularly those impacting people’s behavior and daily lives, cannot come about overnight; they often require years of hard work and investment before revealing any enduring progress.

Fortunately, that work is beginning to pay off. When a recent survey asked Goma households if they planned to replace their fuel-efficient stoves at the end of their natural life cycle, 99 percent said they would.

About the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE)

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) CARPE program supports initiatives to improve the management of the Congo Basin’s biodiversity and natural resources. Since 1995, the program has invested millions of dollars in protecting the massive forest sometimes called Earth’s “second lung” while providing local people with economic alternatives to overexploiting it. 

CARPE is implemented in collaboration with African Parks, African Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Maryland, the Wildlife Conservation Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and other partners. Learn more

Video clips at top of page: Forest in DRC; aerial view of Goma; factory workers making fuel-efficient stoves at Goma Stove; charcoal kiln built on a site recently burned and cleared of forest in Ntondo, DRC; mountain gorillas; a fuel-efficient stove for smoking fish in Ntondo, DRC; a village alongside the Congo River; making briquettes out of charcoal residue at the Goma Stove factory; workers shape the metal exteriors of the fuel-efficient stoves sold at Goma Stove. Forest footage Kiki Dohmeier /; gorilla footage Byba Sepit/; all others Molly Bergen /WCS/WWF/WRI. Music by the women of Mpaha, DRC.  

%d bloggers like this: