Bamboo household energy for Africa

Photo: CIFOROrganization: International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR)

Wood charcoal is a major source of household energy in Africa, but it is a contributor to deforestation and resulting resource scarcity. INBAR is introducing bamboo as an alternative to wood charcoal and firewood.

What is bamboo’s true potential for mitigating climate change and contributing to household food security?  What incentives do rural families have for taking up bamboo charcoal technology, and do they have the resources necessary to make the initial (though small) investment? What are the consequences of replacing native ecosystems with bamboo ecosystems, even in areas where bamboo is a native species? Is bamboo charcoal really a climate solution of consequence? Share your views – join the discussion at the bottom of this page!

Live presentation



Synopsis: The presentation will focus on how the use of bamboo can help support sustainable livelihoods and food security through renewable biomass. It will highlight how the introduction of bamboo charcoal offers innovative opportunities for Africa’s deforestation and climate change challenges

The Problem ↓

Demand for household energy continues to be a main driver for deforestation – especially in Africa. Many existing forest resources are exploited to satisfy energy needs. Deforestation is dramatic especially around many settlements in Africa – which has severe negative effects on ecosystems and land productivity. The high pressure on land can results in degraded ecosystems which can longer support the needs of local communities. Consequently access to biomass for energy for the poor can become increasingly restricted. The remaining available biomass for energy might be too far away for the poor to access and biomass on the market might be too costly.

This limited access to energy has direct links to food security as many foods need to be cooked in order to be eaten. Thus, food might be available, but in order to be made suitable for human consumption, energy is required. Household energy is also important to ensure hygienic conditions and food safety and to prevent diseases which can arise from consumption of raw food.

Demand for household energy is projected to increase continuously. That is why innovative sustainable and renewable energy options as well as innovative land uses need to be developed and applied.

The Solution ↓

Bamboos are fast-growing woody grasses that grow mostly in the tropics and subtropics in mixed forests, as pure stands or in groves, and are cultivated in plantations, on homesteads and on farms. Bamboos can be used for a wide range of applications and products – some of which have a high value. Examples have shown that the setting up of bamboo value chains has proven to be an effective tool in rural development. Although commonly associated with Asia and to a lesser extent with Latin America, bamboos are also indigenous and widespread in Africa, but mainly used for subsistence purposes. Bamboos are amongst the fastest-growing plants, growing at up to a meter per day. Unlike trees, bamboos form extensive rhizome and root systems. The rhizome system survives the harvesting of individual culms, so the bamboo ecosystem can be productive whilst continuing to store carbon, as new culms will replace the harvested ones (usually within a year). This implies that bamboo ecosystems can be highly renewable, as they allow regular extraction of biomass without threatening the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Experiences show that growing or utilizing bamboos can help rural communities to adapt to climate change. Bamboos provide an annual supply of woody biomass. Using bamboo biomass (in form of charcoal or firewood) instead of biomass from trees to satisfy household energy demands can reduce pressure on other woody forest resources and, thus, help avoid deforestation. Moreover, bamboos are tolerant plants which can grow on degraded lands – so, they can be used to (re-) establish productive ecosystem, for agricultural or agroforestry purposes. In addition, new bamboo biomass plantations could be established on deforested areas, thus reducing competition between biomass and food production. Innovative land use systems can be developed which provide both, biomass for energy and for food/feed. Such land use systems can increase the income and climatic resilience of rural communities.

With a few simple steps in addition to those needed for fuelwood, bamboo biomass can be processed into charcoal. Charcoal represents a more efficient energy source and storage, than simply burning untreated woody biomass, and hence tends to be popular, particularly in cities. Bamboo charcoal has comparable heating/energy values to other types of charcoal. In addition, first studies indicate that bamboo charcoal burns cleaner than many other types of charcoal. The processes for charcoal making are rather simple and require only limited investment costs, thus, allowing rural communities in Africa to grow and process their own renewable energy. Through selling bamboo charcoal, the rural communities can generate additional income. Technologies for making clean burning bamboo charcoal products have been developed in Asia during the last decades. Therefore the available technology and knowledge can be transferred from Asia to African countries with serious  deforestation problems and (future) fuelwood and charcoal shortages.

Household energy for cooking is an integral part of food security, and therefore the development of the value chain, sustainable livelihoods and additional income opportunities based on bamboo charcoal provides both direct and indirect support to food security.

The Method ↓

The programme is based on South-South cooperation through the transfer of knowledge and technology from Asia to Africa. The first step is to introduce and demonstrate bamboo charcoal to rural communities, energy markets and decision makers. Bamboo resources in Africa tend to be under-utilized, and local communities are often not aware of the opportunities that bamboo resources offer. These options for household energy need to be demonstrated and value chains need to be set up – connecting producers in the rural areas with consumers in urban areas. Besides awareness raising, training and capacity building is needed in local communities to enable them to sustainably manage their bamboo resources and to optimize long term productivity. Demonstration kilns need to be set up and community-level training on charcoal making needs to be carried out. In addition, awareness raising that bamboo charcoal holds comparable energy features will also help local communities and decision makers develop trust in this new energy resource.

Funded by the European Commission (EC), a four-year INBAR project (2009-2013) is the first to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as an alternative to timber charcoal in Ghana and Ethiopia. The overall objective is to increase the use of bamboo as a source of energy for the poor of Ethiopia and Ghana thereby providing a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and economical option to firewood and wood charcoal. The project is increasing the range of useable bamboos available in each country, is establishing bamboo charcoal Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs), and is helping government and civil society organisations to support bamboo firewood and charcoal production and use. The experiences from the programme will be applicable throughout the bamboo-growing regions of Africa.

The project partners include the Rural Energy Development and Promotion Centre (EREDPC), Ethiopia; Federal Micro and Small Enterprises Development Agency (FeMSEDA), Ethiopia; Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), Ghana; Bamboo and Rattan Development Programme (BARADEP), Ghana; Nanjing Forestry University (NFU), China.

Up to now, results of this initiative include:

  • Over 600 hectares of new bamboo were planted in Ethiopia and Ghana;
  • Over 10,000 hectares of previously un-managed bamboo forests have been changed into silvi-culturally managed stands with increased productivity;
  • Local capacity was built: around 4,000 individuals were trained (providing additional skills which can contribute to new sources of income and sustainable livelihoods);
  • More than 120,000 energy-saving stoves were are in use (and increase energy efficieny of respective households);
  • 4 brick kilns and 4 metal kilns were constructed in Ethiopia;
  • More than 10,000 households use bamboo as firewood or charcoal (providing them with a sustainable and renewable supply of household energy – which is essential for food security);
  • Dependence on wood charcoal by households and commercial vendors has been reduced by 20% in project regions in Ghana (and thus reducing pressure on forests);
  • More than 550 tons of bamboo charcoal were produced.

In conclusion, the project was successful in introducing a new source of energy and in providing diversified and innovative income opportunities for rural communities in Africa. These positive experiences can now be up-scaled and out-scaled to other areas in Africa, giving them the opportunity to generate income and to contribute to food security as well as climate change.   

  • Carmelita Bersalona November 30, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Bamboo charcoal will minimize the destruction of the forest and it also provides livelihood to people who will get into its production.

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