Cover Image
close this bookBoiling Point No. 29 - December 1992 (ITDG - ITDG, 1992, 40 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentHousehold Energy Developments in Southern and Africa
View the documentCookstoves in East & Central Africa
View the documentTanzanian Stoves
View the documentCharcoal & Woodfuel Health Hazards
View the documentFrom Clay & Wood to Cast Iron & Coal in South Africa
View the documentHousehold Energy Activities in Uganda
View the documentGTZ Section
View the documentBurundi Institutional Peat Stove Programmes
View the documentWood, Charcoal or Coal for Cooking in Southern Africa
View the documentEnergy & Environment in Zimbabwe
View the documentA New Environmentally Sound Energy Strategy for the Development of Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentKang-Lianzao Bed Stove
View the documentField Trials of Electrical Heat Storage Cookers in Nepal
View the documentNEWS
View the documentR & D NEWS

Wood, Charcoal or Coal for Cooking in Southern Africa

Coal, a suitable substitute for firewood ?
from "Energy & Environment", Technology Information Services, Botswana Technology Centre, Private Bag 0082, Gaborone, Botswana. August 1991

With the indiscriminate cutting of trees and an apparent shortage of firewood, rural women face the daunting task of searching for alternative sources of energy. This was the main thrust of a recent seminar on Women and Energy held in Kanye, Botswana. The seminar was organised by the Botswana Technology Centre.

The main aim of the seminar was to discuss the problems of women and energy and to find alternatives to woodfuel, currently the preferred source of energy particularly among low-income, rural householders. Seminar participants generally agreed that coal was the preferred fuel after fuelwood. Like firewood, coal can be used for cooking, space heating and ironing.

In Botswana, woodfuel is the single most important fuel used for domestic cooking, space heating, ironing and beer brewing. According to Lungi Molamu, a social scientist who conducted a case study on women and energy in Pitsane, most women use fuelwood because they are accustomed to it and it is the only affordable source of energy. available. Even government institutions such as schools and clinics use wood because it is cheap.

Although coal is a suitable substitute for firewood, there are some problems associated with its use in the household, particularly among the low-income groups. The results of the case study showed that coal is relatively expensive, therefore its use is limited. Some women who can afford coal find it dirty and smoky and say that one needs a formal house to accommodate a coal stove. Most low income householders in Botswana build grass thatched huts, which make it difficult to accommodate a coal stove and chimney.

The Pitsane ease study also showed that the availability of coal and its distribution are inadequate. The few coal depots that exist in the country are usually long distances away from the majority of the villages. The bad roads and poor transportation services make it almost impossible for rural area dwellers to have access to coal supplies.

Seminar participants suggested that government should subsidize coal for household use. At present the only source of energy that is being subsidized is paraffin, which is predominantly used for lighting.

They also recommended that the distribution and packaging of coal should be given high priority and coal depots should be located at strategic points to service the majority of the rural dwellers. Coal should be packaged in small bags and retailed in commercial shops so that poor households can buy it.

It was the view of the participants that the Expanded Coal Utilization Project, ECUP, should strengthen its efforts to make coal a household fuel in the rural areas.

Seminar participants also suggested that government institutions such as primary schools and clinics, as well as other users of woodfuel, should be encouraged to use coal. The use of coal in primary schools would alleviate the burden of parents having to provide firewood for the schools as is currently the case. These institutions collect firewood from villages surrounding urban centres. This not only exacerbates the problem of woodfuel for the rural women, it also speeds up the process of deforestation.

Overall, participants agreed that women should be involved in all energy matters relevant to their needs and called for more effective information dissemination on energy matters. It was also agreed that women's involvement in the decision-making process on suitable energy choices for low-income communities should be encouraged.

Charcoal, a threat to Zambian forests
source "Household Energy in Zambia" Gertrude Sakibita, (Kengo, Nairobi, 1990)

With 40 million hectares or 56% of its total land area under forest woodland, Zambia is certainly among the very few countries in Africa which can, with good management, avoid the problem of deforestation. However, the indiscriminate culling of trees to produce charcoal and the expansion of agriculture threaten these rich forests.

The use of woodfuel is limited to the rural areas but this does not pose a threat to the forest because as a rule people do not cut down trees for use as fuel; rather, they collect dead twigs. Whole trees are cut only when construction needs arise. The production of charcoal in the traditional kilns, however, is a major threat to the environment. Live trees are usually cut info logs and used for charcoal making.

Charcoal was first produced on a large scale early in the century for use in the copper mines. Today, the major consumers of charcoal are still the copper mines and to a lesser extent urban householders.

Woodfuel users in Zambia can be divided into two main categories: the rural area dwellers who use wood and the urban area dwellers who use charcoal. It is estimated that 85% of the urban population utilises charcoal for their cooking and heating purposes. On average, a family of six consumes three or four 40 kg bags of charcoal per month.

According to the Zambian National Resources Department, this continued dependence on charcoal for household energy is coupled with limited afforestation at a rate of 135,000 ha per year. Deforestation occurs around the urban areas and as a result of long distances and high transportation cost charcoal prices are sky-rocketing.

However, efforts are underway to produce charcoal from eucalyptus. There are a number of issues which have to be addressed before eucalyptus charcoal can be marketed as an alternative to traditional charcoal. These include the availability of improved stoves on the market and a reliable distribution network.

Zambia is currently trying to find alternatives for woodfuel and charcoal and has given priority to accelerated electrification and making more efficient use of charcoal. This in part means improving the efficiency of charcoal production and distribution and introducing improved stoves.

Casamance kiln best for charcoal burning
from "Energy & Environment", Technology Information Services, Botswana Technology Centre, Private Bag 0082, Gaborone, Botswana. August 1991

In Tanzania the most widely used method for charcoal production is the traditional earth kiln. At the Timber Utilisation Research Centre at Moshi, Tanzania, tests were conducted on the performance of five different traditional earth kilns and the results obtained proved that the Casarnance earth kiln is the most technically and economically viable method for charcoal production in the rural areas.

The Casamance is an improved earth kiln, where wood is arranged radially on a platform to form a circular structure about one metre high. An earth chamber is then constructed all round the kiln and a chimney is fixed at the kiln to reverse the draught downwards through the charge. After covering with vegetation and soil, firing is done from the top centre.


It has been observed that the quality of charcoal does not depend entirely on the tree species used, but more on the technique of carbonisation applied by the producer. Therefore, the habitual preference for particular tree species by charcoal burners needs to be addressed and charcoal producers educated on different raw materials which are suitable for charcoal making.