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International Partnerships

Supporting charcoal makers to protect the Congo Basin forests

Charcoal is the main source of energy for cooking in many cities in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kisangani, a major urban centre with over 2 million people located in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With most homes off-the-grid, makala – as charcoal is locally known – is a basic necessity good that is supplied by thousands of producers in neighbouring rural communities.

A charcoal producer plants an acacia tree in his field
A charcoal producer plants an acacia tree in his field. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Alphonse Selemani is one of them. Living in Yanonge, a town about 60 kilometres away from Kisangani, he is a farmer who grows staple crops such as cassava and maize. Makala production is a side activity that allows him to earn a cash income and pay for necessary expenses such as school fees. In recent years, however, he has noticed that his favourite tree species for charcoal have become difficult to find.

Due to growing demand and unchecked exploitation, charcoal is a main driver of forest degradation in the landscape, encroaching the surrounding off-reserve forests and the protected areas of Yangambi, Ngazi and Yoko. This is far from being a local problem, it is estimated that 84 percent of all harvested wood in the DRC is used for energy, a major threat to the second biggest tropical forest in the world, the Congo Basin.

For Norbert Kimbwaka, also a charcoal producer from Yanonge, forest degradation puts his livelihood at risk.

The farther we have to go harvest trees, the more money we have to pay for transport, and the more time we have to spend producing the same amount of charcoal.

Norbert Kimbwaka, a charcoal producer from Yanonge

Alphonse and Norbert benefit from EU support since 2019 to make their activities more sustainable and profitable. Coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the project Governing multifunctional landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa (GML) is working in 4 countries – Kenya, Cameroon, Zambia and DRC – to minimize the environmental impact of woodfuel value chains and improve the living conditions of people involved in production and trade.

As a first step, producers receive backing to create an association, which helps them better organise their business and carry out joint activities for collective benefit. In addition to legal advice, they get training in commercial and administrative skills to ensure that they make a fair profit. For example, they can sell their makala in bulk to negotiate a higher price, or they can rent their own transport to sell it directly in the city and avoid intermediaries.

Norbert Kimbwaka - Copyright: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Associations are then supported to set up community nurseries to grow seedlings of fast-growing and native tree species that can be used for charcoal production in 6 to 10 years. Since most producers are also farmers, trees are planted in their fields, and the selected species help fertilise the soil and improve their harvests.

Another major issue faced by producers is the lack of skills in carbonisation, as most of them have informally learned their trade through their peers.

Alphonse Selemani and other charcoal makers recover a fallen tree for makala
Alphonse Selemani and other charcoal makers recover a fallen tree for makala - Copyright: Axel Fassio/CIFOR
Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Charcoal production is a lot of hard work and at the end we have very low yields.

Alphonse Selemani

This is why the third activity of the project focuses on providing training on improved techniques, so producers can get the same amount of charcoal by using half the wood. Proper drying of the wood and simple innovations in the construction of a kiln, such as leaving space for the air to circulate, sorting wood differently, or adding a chimney, can make a big difference.

In 2020, EU funding allowed CIFOR to train about 70 charcoal makers and to establish 11 community nurseries in the area around Kisangani. In that year, over 220,000 trees were planted through this initiative – an amount that should double in 2021.

Author: Ahtziri Gonzalez