Can the charcoal trade be a sustainable enterprise?

Using charcoal for cooking is very common in Ghana.

Using charcoal for cooking is very common in Ghana.

In developing countries across the globe, the poor rely on wood fuel as their principal source of energy. That’s especially true in Africa; the International Energy Association estimates that up to 93 per cent of rural and 58 per cent of urban households are dependent on charcoal for cooking.

Sixty per cent of all wood taken from the world’s forests is believed to be burnt as fuel – either directly or by first converting it into charcoal (F.A.O., 1987) The proportion of fuel wood used to make charcoal is estimated around 25 per cent or about 400 million cubic metres per year across the world.

In Ghana, charcoal production is increasing in the transition zone and the three northern regions where forest degradation is very high. Areas of long-term charcoal production on customary land — where traditional controls dictated who was allowed to cut trees and ensured forest regeneration after harvest — could serve as models for sustainable charcoal production.

Widely blamed as key drivers of deforestation in Ghana, charcoal production has been a significant contributor to rural livelihoods, as identified in a research by Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) in 2003, which urged a return to local management of forests, supported through district bye-laws.

There are three key factors that drive the production of charcoal:

1. Poverty

2. Limited employment opportunity

3. Quick and easy access as a business enterprise.

The forest resources for charcoal production are available in the rural areas, that is to say, “It starts with an acknowledgement that rural communities are the custodians of the forests, and they should have a say in how these resources are to be used,” said John Mason, the Executive Director of NCRC. The livelihood and the socio-economic benefit are not openly acknowledged. The markets are there and the transportation is not a problem.

Increasingly, the industry is being dominated by illegal operators taking advantage of a lack of monitoring and the irregular issuance of permits, according to a study, “Local charcoal trade, stakeholders and economic linkages in Ghana” NCRC, December 2007.

The transition zone, namely, Nkoranza, Kintampo, and Wenchi districts where the initial studies were done, lies within the wet semi-equatorial region of Ghana. These districts are part of the transitional zone between the savannah woodland of northern Ghana and the forest belt of the south. Thus, most parts of the districts are largely characterised by savannah woodland, and fewer areas of savannah re-growth.

Some parts of the districts are largely marked by forest re-growth, made up of shrubs and grasses with few original tree species, especially silk cotton trees.

Charcoal production is a major activity in the dry season for most communities and as such, the districts are known to be the highest charcoal production points in Ghana.

Lawless versus regulated production

District assemblies can derive substantial revenue from taxes on charcoal and stands the chance to increase revenues, if the charcoal trade is regularised. However, the greatest challenge is the high incidence of corruption on the part of revenue collectors, who always undercut payments from the receipts and the truck drivers, who under estimate the number of charcoal bags they convey.

Charcoal producers make very little profit, on the average, a charcoal producer makes a profit of Gh¢2.00 on every bag of charcoal produced and they can produce 50 bags per month from an average mound. Production cost is increasing with increasing difficulty in finding suitable wood from the forest, fuel and labour cost.

Compared to middlemen, roadside sellers, market women and truck dealers, who sponsor the production depending on the amount the producer needs, the amount is paid upfront and granted that the charcoal is not delivered, it becomes a debt to be paid not by cash, but by charcoal bags as originally agreed.

Most people in the production aspect are immigrants from the Sissala tribe in the north-western part of Ghana. They have no right to land and, therefore, exercise very little responsibility over the environment after charcoal production.

About 70 per cent of people in the charcoal trade in the Nkoranza and Kintampo areas practise it as their main job while in the Wenchi/Tain area it is mostly practised as a supporting job.

Production of charcoal

Production of charcoal

Effects of charcoal production

The trend of production and supply over the past five years has been on the increase in the face of increasing difficulty in finding suitable wood from the forest, this has been the major driver of land degradation in the transition zone, the impacts of charcoal production have been exacerbated by the absence of control system, monitoring, corruption and ineffective law enforcement thereby increasing environmental degradation and forest depletion.

With 70 per cent of households in Ghana relying on charcoal as an inexpensive fuel for cooking and heating, demand is high for the product which is typically made in inefficient earthen kilns.

Demand is highest in urban centres, according to a study which cited figures from an independent energy study showing that 85 per cent of households in the capital, Accra, used charcoal, compared with only 15 per cent in rural areas. The rate of household charcoal consumption in Accra was estimated at 2.2 tons a year produced from about 10.4 tons of wood, the report said.

Poverty and limited livelihood options drive charcoal production in Ghana, where subsistence agriculture is the dominant land use. Rural poverty rates in the transition zone of Ghana showed that it was between 20 per cent and 30 per cent.

The study predicted that the demand for charcoal would continue to increase as urbanisation continue in Ghana, unless affordable alternatives were found.

In Ghana, an increase in the spread of markets selling charcoal suggests higher levels of demand, according to the study. Fieldwork conducted as part of the research found evidence of sale points in every part of urban dwellings. As a result, some communities, especially those close to highways linking the cities, have been completely cleared of trees, while others have been degraded, with young trees cut before the forest could regenerate.

Deforestation caused by the cutting of trees

Deforestation caused by the cutting of trees

The study indicated that “It was identified that a large proportion of the area utilised for charcoal production has the potential for rapid forest recovery, especially with good post-harvest management, but sadly no government schemes aimed at better production have been put in place,” Amanor 1999.

Charcoal production frequently results in degradation, rather than outright deforestation, because community woodlots established during a previous project, Rural Environmental Empowerment Project (REEP), supported by the EU which directed efforts toward “restoring areas that have been degraded through fire” produced tremendous results in Busunya, in the Nkoranza North District. Fast-growing tree plants were established as woodlots for charcoal production to be harvested in cycles.


District assemblies should create local level institutions with greater and keen interest in forest management.

There is the need to facilitate the development of local rules and guidelines for managing forests for charcoal production, with incentives for forest owners and managers.

District assemblies should provide special support to women charcoal producers to ensure sustainability in the confines of the law.

Urban consumers should be part of the debate in production, utilisation and conservation efforts. There should be adequate information on implications of charcoal production on forests, trees and livelihoods.

While looking for more efficient kilns and energy-saving stoves for charcoal production and utilisation, it will be better to organise charcoal producers at the district levels to provide capacity on technical and business management in charcoal production.

Above all, there is the need to step up research on alternative feed stock, such as saw dust and bamboo for the production of charcoal to make the enterprise a sustainable one.

Written by James Agyei-Ohemeng, Principal Technician, University of Energy and Natural Resources, Sunyani.