RAEL Research Project Description


A Social and Technical Analysis of Charcoal Production in Narok District of Kenya


Between one-third and one-half of the world’s population continues to use wood and other biomass fuels to meet their energy needs. The use of wood as a household fuel is overwhelmingly concentrated in less developed countries where, for a number of reasons, alternative fuels like natural gas, kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and electricity, have not been widely adopted.

The impacts of such widespread wood consumption extend across a range of social and environmental issues including health problems associated with indoor air pollution (IAP), and environmental change associated with both greenhouse gas emissions and the depletion of local forests and woodlands. In addition, heavy reliance on woodfuel creates high labor demands and potentially hazardous conditions for members of the household that typically fall affect women and children in a disproportionate way. 

Despite these associations, it is important to recognize that a direct causal link between woodfuel consumption and any one of these problems can not be considered in isolation. These problems rarely arise as a result of woodfuel consumption alone.  Rather, they are the result of complex relationships between woodfuel consumers, the environment in which they live and the larger political economy. Therefore, understanding the problems associated with household woodfuel consumption is only possible by considering the social, political-economic and environmental context in which they arise.

This research project has been designed to help gain a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between environmental and political economic factors shaping Kenya’s charcoal trade, which is one of Africa’s most vibrant energy-related markets.  The importance of charcoal in Kenya’s economy can not be overstated.  Charcoal plays a crucial important role in people’s livelihoods, from rural charcoal-makers to urban charcoal vendors and domestic consumers.  A recent study by the Ministry of Energy estimated that charcoal generates over $300 million in annual revenues.  This revenue is roughly equivalent to the money generated by the nation’s tourism industry, which every government official would admit is critical to the economic health of the nation.

Over 80% of Kenya’s urban population use charcoal as their primary source of domestic energy and over 30% of the nation’s rural population also use it to meet some of their energy needs.  Combining both urban and rural charcoal consumption with the demand from cottage industry, restaurants and other catering institutions shows that charcoal production is the single largest end-use of wood in Kenya today, surpassing wood consumed directly as firewood, as well as wood used in construction and for pulp and paper (Ministry of Energy, 2002). 

The overall effect of this huge demand for wood resources is not clear.  Charcoal has impacts that are both positive and negative.  One the one hand, it burns more cleanly and efficiently than unprocessed firewood, Kenya’s other major cooking fuel.  Thus, for many consumers, particularly in crowded urban areas, charcoal likely has health benefits over firewood (Ezzati and Kammen, 2002). It is also well-tailored to the urban poor, because it can be purchased in very small quantities and does not require any expensive equipment to use. 

However, charcoal burns more cleanly than wood at the point of end-use because the production process drives off moisture and most of the volatile matter, a process that releases large quantities of greenhouse gases (Bailis, Ezzati et al., 2003).  Moreover, the impact on Kenya’s forests and woodlands is most likely quite negative, but very difficult to quantify.  This difficulty arises for several reasons: Kenya’s charcoal originates from different types of ecosystems on land that is controlled under a range of land tenure regimes and management practices.  Some charcoal production involves clear-cutting while other production involves selective harvesting.  Some tree removals are purely for commercial charcoal production, while other trees are cleared to create additional agricultural or pastoral land, with charcoal simply made as a by-product of the land clearance.  Without conducting an in-depth on-site analyses, it is extremely difficult to determine the extent of environmental damage that is occurring and it is equally difficult to determine causal factors contributing to that damage.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas of Kenya, commercial charcoal production has led to deforestation of large tracts of wooded savannah in order to meet Kenya’s charcoal demands (Ecoforum, 2002).  In addition, some recent aerial studies sponsored by UNEP and East Africa Wildlife Association) have shown that charcoal production, among other activities, has taken a serious toll on some of Kenya’s few remaining closed-canopy forest areas (Gathaara, 1999; Lambrechts, Woodley et al., 2003; Vanleeuwe, Woodley et al., 2003).  These areas, which include Mt. Kenya Forest Reserve, Aberdares National Park, and the Mau Forest Complex do not provide the bulk of Kenya’s charcoal.  Nevertheless, they are at risk as a result of charcoal-making activities.  Because of their sensitivity and high-profile, these forest zones have protected status.  It is illegal to produce charcoal or extract any forest products from these areas and, unlike other less sensitive areas, the law is strictly enforced. 

While it is important to understand the effects of charcoal production in Kenya’s few remaining closed forests and take steps to minimize the negative impacts of that activity, the majority of Kenya’s charcoal is produced from shrub-lands, rangelands and wooded savanna typical of the landscape shown in the picture to the left. 

Very little is known about the extent of charcoal production in these ecosystems and less is known about the degree to which current charcoal production practices can be sustained in the long term.  Studies in other countries where charcoal is a popular fuel have demonstrated that these types of woodlands can recover from charcoal production without significant degradation under certain land uses, but the extent of ecosystem recovery is sensitive to land management practices (Chidumayo, 1993; Hosier, 1993).

This research project is exploring charcoal production in Narok, a district in southwestern Kenya that is home to Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  The district is also one of Kenya’s main charcoal production areas.  Less than 5% of the district’s land area is state-owned forest that is subject to the protection of the Kenyan government (Ministry of Finance and Planning, 2002). Narok’s charcoal comes primarily from wooded savannah which is either private or communal land, which the state has little power to regulate. 

In Narok, we are seeking to understand the role that charcoal plays in the rural economy.  In addition, we want to identify the socioeconomic, political, and environmental factors that make this area a major charcoal production zone, and assess the sustainability of charcoal production in this region.  Thus far we have surveyed about 50 charcoal producers working on roughly 30 different plots of privately owned land.  Our analysis is ongoing.  Watch this space for results of the study or contact Rob Bailis for more details.  

This work is supported by the Link Foundation fellowship for Energy-Related Research and the Energy Foundation.  While in Kenya, Rob Bailis is hosted by Dr. Evans Kituyi at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), which itself is hosted at the World Agroforestry Centre (formerly the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry or ICRAF). 


Bailis, R., M. Ezzati, et al. (2003). "Greenhouse Gas Implications of Household Energy Technologies in Kenya." Environmental Science and Technology 37(10): 2051-2059.

Chidumayo, E. N. (1993). "Zambian Charcoal Production: Miombo Woodland Recovery." Energy Policy 21(5): 586-597.

Ecoforum (2002). Hot and Dirty: Inside Kenya's 23 Billion Shilling Charcoal Industry. EcoForum. Nairobi. 25: 16-22.

Ezzati, M. and D. Kammen (2002). "Evaluating the Health Benefits of Transitions in Household Energy Technology in Kenya." Energy Policy 30(10): 815-826.

Gathaara, G. N. (1999). Aerial Survey of the Destruction Of Mt. Kenya, Imenti and Ngare Ndare Forest Reserves: February - June 1999. Nairobi, Kenya Wildlife Service: 33.

Hosier, R. H. (1993). "Charcoal Production and Environmental Degradation: environmental history, selective harvesting, and post-harvest management." Energy Policy 21(5): 491-509.

Lambrechts, C., B. Woodley, et al. (2003). Aerial Survey of the Destruction of the Aberdare Range Forests. Nairobi, UNEP: Division of Early Warning and Assessment: 35.

Ministry of Energy (2002). Study on Kenya's Energy Demand, Supply and Policy Strategy for Households, Small Scale Industries and Service Establishments: Final Report. Nairobi, KAMFOR Company Limited: 158.

Ministry of Finance and Planning (2002). Narok District Development Plan: 2002-2008. Nairobi, Government of Kenya: 80.

Vanleeuwe, H., B. Woodley, et al. (2003). Changes in the State of Conservation of Mt. Kenya Forests: 1999-2002. Nairobi, UNEP: Division of Early Warning and Assessment: 31.