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close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
close this folderPart 3: Environment and resource management
close this folderThe fuelwood/energy crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentPopulation and environmental concerns
View the documentThe primary energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentProblems of the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentThe socio-economic implications of the fuelwood crisis
View the documentStrategies to combat the fuelwood crisis Strategies to combst the fuelwood crisis
View the documentNew and renewable energy development
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences


Population and environmental concerns
The primary energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
Problems of the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
The socio-economic implications of the fuelwood crisis
Strategies to combst the fuelwood crisis
New and renewable energy development


Elizabeth Ardayfio-Schandorf


At the core of the question of the sustainable development of SubSaharan Africa (SSA) lies the problem of development itself. Without development there is the possibility that SSA's problems will multiply. Since the 1960s its gross domestic product (GDP) has declined steadily. Higher oil prices, fluctuating agricultural commodity prices, and a lack of adequate response strategies have contributed to aggravate this situation. Excessive borrowing from international financial institutions provided funds to support infrastructural development, but the inability of SSA to service these loans has resulted in the region's present debt crisis. Other factors such as the drought of the 1980s severely affected the food and energy supplies of most countries. Further decline in these countries may tend to undermine growth in the economy. Should population growth occur without development, SSA will be compelled to exploit its resources on a non-renewable basis, thus accelerating environmental deterioration. For effective development, SSA should aim at a type of development that is sustainable.

In this connection, an important element in the developmental system is the complex issue of energy.

The countries in SSA are rich in modern energy resources. A few have large oil and natural gas reserves, some have coal, and several have hydroelectric power. Albeit, the rate of consumption of these resources is limited, per capita consumption being the lowest in the world. The main commercial energy resources consumed in SSA are petroleum (41 per cent), natural gas (14 per cent), hydroelectricity (10 per cent), and coal (35 per cent). In the total resources, including traditional fuels, wood fuel is dominant (Ardayfio 1986). All these energy forms have their environmental effect. Contemporary biomass fuel use results in deforestation and land degradation, which is associated with non-sustainable use of land resources and environment. Air pollution is also linked with the use of coal, oil, gas, and water, and with solid waste problems. Policies relating to institutions and investments are needed to improve the energy situation and reduce the environmental impact.

Hence this paper seeks to appraise the extent of the energy problem in Sub-Saharan Africa with special reference to the fuelwood crisis. The problems of the energy sector in the rural and urban areas are considered, while subsequent sections are devoted to the socioeconomic implications of the fuelwood crisis and the strategies that have so far been adopted to combat the crisis. Finally, the development of new and renewable energy is discussed before the conclusion.

Population and environmental concerns

The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is growing by leaps and bounds (3 per cent per annum), reaching over 459 million in 1990 (World Bank 1992) in spite of family planning measures to bring it under control. With a fast population growth rate, people are unable to feed themselves. Meanwhile energy demand is increasing with the rise in population. With increased urbanization and industrialization the situation is worsening as more energy is needed. At the same time, an increase in the demand for petroleum for food production and modernization is leading to an economic crisis. The cost of imports has risen and the value of exports has fallen. More cash crops have to be produced to provide foreign exchange. Meanwhile, farmers and nation-states in general are impoverished and indebted because they have to produce more for less cash. With the shortening of the follow period marginal lands have to be exploited, leading to environmental crisis with rising economic and environmental costs of production (fig. 13.1). High fertility rates and a high percentage of child-bearing women are contributing to the high population growth rates. The issue at stake here is the distribution of the population and its influence on the existing resources of the region. Urbanization rates are even higher (5.6 per cent), though in many countries economic growth has been slow over the past few decades.

The upsurge of population growth has short- and long-term consequences for the existing forest resource base, land use, and fuelwood production. The economic crisis, with its concomitant high rates of unemployment and very low incomes, has encouraged the use of fuelwood in most African cities (fig. 13.1). These urban centres have become, as it were, a lucrative market for fuelwood because it seems to be relatively available and cheaper than modern fuels, which hitherto have not proved a viable alternative in either rural or urban areas.

With growing population pressure on land use, a fuelwood gap is created, putting more pressure on the producing rural areas. Ultimately it is not only the sustainability of the environment that is at stake but the very survival of the urban poor and rural people, with women being the worst victims.

Though the countries of SSA may have divergent political systems and cultures, in broad terms they seem to have a common feature in so far as energy is concerned. They are literally being squeezed in a common energy problem. On the one hand, there is a heavy reliance on imported petroleum for the commercial sector, making petroleum shortages a chronic problem. On the other hand, there is a growing shortage of fuelwood in the predominant traditional sector and acute scarcity in some subregions.

The fuelwood crisis, as the "other energy crisis" is called, began to emerge during the oil crisis of the 1970s and has been aggravated by agricultural policies that aim at making African countries selfsufficient in food production (Eckholm et al. 1984). This has been achieved at the expense of existing forest lands, which are the main sources for fuelwood. National programmes tend to overlook this relationship between food and forest, so that the focus has been either wood or forest. This implies that wood energy is not being exploited in a manner that is sustainable in African countries. It appears that a more acceptable means for safe and sustainable energy production is yet to be found. Before this can be achieved, a good understanding of the African energy situation needs to be established as a basis for formulating a sustainable energy agenda.

Fig. 13.1 The crises of sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa

According to Gamser (1980), little is known about the dependence of poor people in Africa on the use of forest resources for meeting their energy and subsistence needs. The measures needed to develop energy resources to ensure that rural interests can be served are also not well known. Gamser claims that there is not sufficient empirical understanding of the ecologically diverse lands involved in the tropical forest energy crisis. Neither have forest surveys provided adequate data on the dynamics of forest energy. He therefore calls for a concerted effort on the part of the international community to react positively to the shortfall in the existing data on forest energy production and consumption. At the moment most wood energy statistics, including those of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), are based on estimates or unofficial sources, and this has been rather a weakness as regards knowledge about traditional energy. However, studies undertaken since the 1970s reveal the vulnerability of African countries so far as energy resources are concerned.

Although Africa accounts for 12 per cent of the global population, it consumes only 4 per cent of global energy. Besides, 40 per cent of its energy consumption is mainly in the form of biomass and it consumes no less than 40 per cent of this resource. On the global scale, the proportion of biomass in its total energy consumption is 6 per cent (see tables 13.1 and 13.2).

The rate of consumption varies within Africa when compared with other continents. In the Republic of South Africa, for example, out of the annual per capita consumption of 95GJ, only 5 per cent is biomass; in North Africa it is 11 per cent out of 34GJ. In Sub-Saharan Africa by contrast, out of the minimal per capita consumption of only 15GJ, 73 per cent is biomass (FAO 1987).

In the subregions of Africa the fuelwood situation may be determined by the political economy, the ecology, the geography, the demography, and the culture. Thus the fuelwood situation varies from the Sahel across humid West Africa, through Sudan, Kenya, and the SADCC countries.2 However, within each of these countries, two energy crises, of petroleum and of fuelwood, are experienced.

The primary energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa

Although SSA is rich in modern energy resources, some of these are underexplored. The energy potential is expressed in the abundance

Table 13.1 Estimated energy consumption in Africa, 1990


World Million

Africa Million

Africa as % of world
Gas 1,610 68.8 25 1.1 -
0il 2,740 117.1 85 3.6 -
Coal 3,180 135.9 86 3.7 -
Hydro(b) 630 26.9 14 0.6 -
Subtotal 8,160 348.7 210 9.0 2.6
Biomass 600 25.6 140 6.0 23.4
Total 8,760 374.3 350 15.0 4.0
Population (million) 5,300   650   12.3

Source: United Nations (1990).
a. TOE = tons of oil equivalent.
EJ = exajoules = 1018J.
b. Primary energy equivalent.

Table 13.2 Estimated energy consumption in Africa by region, 1990


North Africa

Sub-Sahara excl. R.S.A.

Republic of South Africa

  Million TOE EJ Million TOE EJ Million TOE EJ
Non-biomass fuels 80 3.4 47 2.0 83 3.6
Biomass fuels 10 0.4 126 5.4 4 0.2
Total 90 3.8 173 7.4 87 3.8




Population (million) 114 (17%) 497 (77%) 39 (6%)

Source: United Nations (1990).

Within Sub-Sabaran Africa only five countries account for almost all the oil produced - Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Congo, and the Central African Republic (in descending order of output in 1991). The greater proportion is exported outside the region, even though petroleum is needed internally. Nigeria alone accounts for about three-quarters of the OPEC oil regulated quotas. On the whole, the total petroleum consumed is below 25 per cent of the total production (figs. 13.2 and 13.3).

Natural gas reserves on the continent are enormous and it is observed that the current reserves outweigh petroleum reserves if the current rate of production is taken into consideration. Coal reserves, which are more concentrated in the south, are expected to last for about 300 years. The growth rate of coal production has been slow, partly owing to greater reliance on petroleum for energy and to infrastructural and environmental problems.

Unlike coal, hydropower production is more widespread and has been increasing. It grew nearly four-fold between 1950 and 1988. Even at this growth rate, only 4 per cent of this power potential is exploited. Initial investment in production, environmental concerns, as well as old equipment and recurrent drought, have contributed to slowing down the growth of this power sector. Geothermal energy is utilized mainly in East Africa, and the possibility of its development needs to be explored for use elsewhere in SSA. The same goes for the production and supply of renewable energy sources. In these circumstances, wood fuels have become the predominant source of energy in the region.

Problems of the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa

Before the oil crisis in the 1970s, consumption of petroleum and its related products increased because oil was cheap and considered an infinite resource. The advanced industrialized countries developed a consumption infrastructure in the industrial and transport sectors. This meant that demand for petroleum was relatively inelastic. SubSaharan Africa unfortunately developed along these same lines, making it more vulnerable in the oil crisis.

The establishment of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which includes African countries such as Gabon, Nigeria, and Angola, was in response to the inelastic consumption pattern set up by the West in an effort to restrict oil output and to raise prices. Considering the high industrial development and the financial resources available, the West made attempts to move away from petroleum to alternative fuels. Such a move has not been possible in the non-oil-producing countries of Africa, where oil consumption in the energy balance is small and imports very high. For instance, Ghana spends 13 per cent of its foreign exchange on petroleum imports, but this rises to over 20 per cent in Tanzania and Kenya, and more than 40 per cent in Mozambique.

Fig. 13.2 African energy in relation to world production of crude petroleum and electricity (quantities in '000 metric tons of coal equivalent) (Source: based on United Nations 1990)

Fig. 13.3 African energy in relaffon to world consumption of crude petroleum and electricity (quantities in '000 metric tons of coal equivalent) (Source: based on United Nations 1990)

In spite of these huge financial burdens, the direct benefits that accrue from these exorbitant petroleum imports scarcely benefit the rural people. As O'Keefe (1990) remarks, even the recent fall in oil prices may be unlikely to ease the various rationing systems that operate in most non-oil-producing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Because the rural and urban poor cannot afford high-priced petroleum products they have to depend on fuelwood in the various socioeconomic sectors. We therefore find in Sub-Saharan Africa a "paradox" of the wood-fuel situation: a situation of abundant wood-fuel resources in some countries and an acute shortage in certain areas as found in countries such as Ghana and Angola.

In 1981, the FAO undertook a global survey in order to determine fuelwood supplies and demand for them in developing countries such as Africa in 1980 and the year 2000. This was supposed to be one of its contributions to the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Because there was a paucity of source material, the data were based on projections from the early 1980s, but the results present a reasonable picture of the status of fuelwood in Africa. Four major categories of the fuelwood situation were identified:

1. Areas where there has been overexploitation of biomass to the extent that there is fuelwood shortage.

2. Areas where fuelwood demand is in excess of sustainable supply -referred to as "crisis regions."

3. Areas where population growth is likely to give rise to crisis in the foreseeable future - categorized as satisfactory. In this regard the situation in the Sudano-Sahelian region is critical because acute shortages are expected, especially in the rapidly growing periurban areas. This is occurring because of increasing encroachment of agricultural land, and industrial, residential, and commercial developments. Bushfires and fuelwood production compounded by population expansion have also resulted in gradual depletion of wood-fuel resources on an annual basis.

4. Areas estimated to be generally free of fuelwood supply problems - the humid and semi-humid areas. Nevertheless, large urban centres such as Yaounde, Brazzaville, and Kinshasa located within the forest ecosystems are already experiencing local shortages. This is also occurring in the semi-humid areas of East Africa wherever very high population densities threaten wood-fuel resources. Communal land reserves are particularly in danger of fuelwood depletion.

As an example of the fuelwood situation in East Africa, the Kakamega District of the Western Province of Kenya can be cited. Having an area of 3,500 km2, which constitutes only 0.5 per cent of Kenya's land area, the province harbours over 6.5 per cent of the population. As one of the most populous regions of the country, its population densities are over 800 persons per km2 in localized areas. This has generated a mosaic of small fragmented farms of about 0.5 ha feeding large families of about 10. Consequently, considerable pressure has been put on the limited land to the extent that agriculture and fuel needs are severely threatened. Farmers have no viable alternatives other than to depend on their own tiny land-holding for fuelwood supplies.

Similarly, a fuelwood deficit is to be found in the small mountainous SADCC countries, where population pressure has created acute wood-fuel shortages in countries such as Malawi and Swaziland. The situation in island countries such as Madagascar is also critical, particularly in the central and western sections.

The dynamics of the fuelwood situation represent a growing crisis. Whereas, in 1980, 55 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lived in areas where there was acute fuelwood scarcity and another 146 million lived in areas with an increasing deficit, it is estimated that by the year 2000 about 535 million people will experience a critical fuelwood deficit if exploitation continues at the current rate (United Nations 1990). Wood-fuel exploitation is not solely responsible for environmental degradation. In the forest areas of SSA, deforestation is caused to a large extent by logging and forest clearance for cultivation. Many trees are also lost as fallow periods are shortened. Generally, areas with a high rate of tree regrowth can meet the needs of a larger population than those with low growth potential. Areas with woodfuel deficits are those with low to moderate rainfall and high population densities. In areas such as the Sahel where there is very low population density and low rainfall, the demand for wood fuels has outstripped the slow growth potential of the woody plants, creating acute fuelwood problems in urban and rural areas.

Energy in rural Africa

Rural energy use in Africa is generally low, reflecting the low industrial and urban base of the African economy. The more rural and the lower the incomes of the community, the more use they make of traditional fuels. Cooking, heating, and local industrial establishments are major consumers of household energy, which is dominated by wood fuels (FRIDA 1980). On present trends it is unlikely that fuel switching will occur in the near future on a large scale. As the population expands one would expect a direct increase in fuelwood utilization.

This being the case, a "wood-fuel paradox" can be observed in operation at both local and national levels. In many African countries there is adequate forest stock for wood-fuel production. Within this apparent situation of plenty, however, specific localized wood-fuel shortages exist in western Kenya, northern Ghana, Angola, Zambia, and the Sudan. Arid and semi-arid areas have their share of scarcity just like the large deforested areas in Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. The low carrying capacity of these countries means that growth is not sustainable for either agriculture or wood fuels. For example, in Zimbabwe, Chad, and Mali, advanced deforestation and soil erosion in infertile areas with poor rainfall have forced many people to migrate.

Deforestation is affecting many rural people, who have been accused of being the cause of deforestation. More often these people produce fuelwood from their own food farms, secondary forests, or fallow lands. Where trees are cleared from agricultural land, they are readily used as fuelwood. Deforestation is caused primarily by the need for fuelwood for the curing of tobacco and tea, by excessive felling of timber for domestic and export markets, by agricultural production, by urbanization, by bushfires, and, more significantly, by demand for wood fuel by urban households.

Urban fuel demand

Patterns of household energy use in urban areas are far more complex than in rural areas. As rural-urban migration opens up more avenues for the poor, it also brings about various problems with limited opportunities. Catering for the fuel needs of the poor is just one of the essential services that poor migrants have to provide in the urban area. These are services that would have been free if they were in the rural areas. As most towns in SSA are growing rapidly, urban growth is paralleled by increasing demand for energy to meet consumption needs. This is met by wood fuels. Hence it is estimated that, if the current rates of population growth continue, urban wood-fuel consumption will surpass that of rural areas in the next 20 years or so (O'Keefe 1990).

The significance of fuelwood in the urban energy balance is the limited access to alternative fuels. Fuelwood competes with other household fuels such as kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and electricity. The choice of fuelwood depends among other things on its cost relative to commercial alternatives, their availability and security, and supply bottlenecks. These encourage a lucrative black market in which prices are much higher than the official stated prices. The prohibitive costs tend to increase the reliance of poor women on fuelwood even if it is scarce and expensive. Besides, there is also the cost of modern cooking stoves, which is not affordable to many households that may want to switch fuels.

The available evidence indicates that urban fuelwood prices have been rapidly increasing, causing a household dilemma for poor women. In urban centres in poorer environments fuelwood prices are almost comparable to those of modern fuels. According to Leach and Mearns (1989), African cities such as Addis Ababa, Harare, Nairobi, and Abidjan are experiencing fuelwood price rises in excess of general inflation rates. Thus fuelwood prices in many large cities are increasing in real terms.

Urban demand for fuelwood is accelerating the degradation of woody vegetation. For example, in the Sudan an area of 31,000 km2 of woodland is cleared each year for fuelwood production, especially for charcoal. In certain areas the resulting scarcity has created a disastrous effect on supplies. For example, in Burkina Faso the land surrounding the city of Ouagadougou has been completely cleared of woody vegetation for 45 km in all directions (French 1978: 1-3). As a result, bulky and low-value wood fuels are transported over hundreds of kilometres to urban markets where the fuels are badly needed. Similarly in East Africa, charcoal has to be transported for about 600 km to Nairobi and its environs. In Nigeria, the long-distance haulage of fuelwood to urban centres has been an official concern since early colonial times (Cline-Cole 1985).

As more land around the towns and cities is further depleted of its remaining vegetation, a vicious cycle of soil erosion is set in motion. In extreme cases, wood fuels gradually vanish from the urban market, as in the Cape Verde islands. Judicious urban energy planning may minimize the degradation and improve the access of women and the urban poor to other energy alternatives.

The socio-economic implications of the fuelwood crisis

Generally, the economic and social consequences of fuelwood exploitation and consumption are overlooked. In Ghana, for example, cooking in the home depends on fuelwood, which is responsible for more than 75 per cent of all energy consumed in the country annually. Most small-scale industries and food-processing enterprises that women undertake depend in large part on wood fuel. This dependence on wood fuels has contributed to the growing exploitation of the country's forest. In all, about 650,000 ha of forest are destroyed every year through the carbonization of charcoal. Alarmingly, between 1974 and 1990 wood-fuel consumption increased by 50 per cent in the country (Ardayfio-Schandorf 1993). This increase mainly reflects the urban demand previously discussed.

Urban demand has, as it were, created fuelwood markets, providing job opportunities for both men and women. Men are involved in the long-distance trade in fuelwood and charcoal, and women are in small-scale fuelwood businesses focused on villages and local markets. Charcoal production is undertaken by women in towns and villages, where they run family businesses more actively during the off farming season.

Though inefficient, wood-fuel production and distribution contribute to some extent to the national balance of payments at the macro level, as foreign exchange that might have been used for the purchase of imported fuels is saved through the use of traditional fuels. This notwithstanding, poor urban women have to pay higher prices for fuelwood and charcoal owing to commercialization. In the rural areas, women and children walk long distances to produce, harvest, and transport fuelwood to their households. However, in areas where forest resources are abundant the production of fuelwood is less problematic. In areas of high population density, women spend longer hours producing fuelwood. In such areas, women collect fuelwood on their return from the farm while they do other things as well (Ardayfio-Schandorf 1981). Similarly, in the semi-arid, arid, or savanna areas with low population density where wood-fuel resources are scarce, women have to walk for longer distances to produce fuelwood.

Where these problems exist, a bigger burden is put on women, who have to make some trade-offs. Women curtail cooking time and even cut down on economic enterprises to make time for fuelwood production. The production time varies from one region to another, with walking distances ranging from about 1 to about 10 km and even more in places such as Ethiopia. The distance covered is reflected in the cost of fuelwood.

In the Sahelian countries where deforestation is severe, fuelwood costs as much as food. Even in Ghana it has been found that women in the savanna (semi-arid) regions have cut down on their cooking time and are cooking less nutritious food because of the fuelwood crisis (Ardayfio, 1986). In view of these problems, some scholars argue that the real energy crisis is women's time. However, the energy crisis goes beyond women's time. In areas where fuelwood is the only energy input for commercial activities for women, they have been forced owing to cost and non-availability of fuelwood to discontinue many economic activities. Because of this pressure, women who are involved in household fuelwood production have developed an intimate knowledge of wood species critical for fuelwood and charcoal production. This knowledge could be exploited in planning to meet improved wood-fuel supplies.

Strategies to combat the fuelwood crisis Strategies to combst the fuelwood crisis

The oil crisis in the 1970s, which raised awareness of the wood-fuel problem, set in motion various strategies for combating it (Eckholm et al. 1984). One of the initial steps that have been taken to solve this problem has been the gathering of adequate data to enhance the understanding of the crisis.

One of the earliest institutions to contribute to the debate was the United Nations University in Tokyo, which recognized the wood-fuel issue as a pressing global problem within its programme of environmental resource utilization and management. Extensive studies were carried out in south-western and northern Nigeria. Among the other institutions that developed a similar focus was the International Labour Organization, whose studies embraced Africa as well as other countries in the developing world. Further information has also been provided by the Beijer Institute of Stockholm about the SADCC countries of southern Africa.

These studies, including the more current ones that are now being undertaken by national institutions, have shed some light on the fuelwood crisis, but more information is still needed to construct a much clearer picture to replace the existing one based on projections from the 1980s. For example, the question of measurement of fuelwood is yet to be solved through further studies throughout SSA.

In the supply and demand area, strategies included a focus on village woodlots, reafforestation, and afforestation programmes based on forest management technology. In Kenya, a study indicated that afforestation programmes projected to the middle of 1985 would contribute only 5 per cent to total fuelwood demand. If such forest plantations were embarked upon in order to solve the wood-fuel problem, the effect will be marginal because the viability of some of the programmes themselves has been questionable.

In spite of this, afforestation programmes have the potential of ensuring some degree of regeneration to conserve soil and water resources around urban centres. They could also provide industrial raw materials and possibly generate export income by exporting timber. In Kenya, for instance, woodlot programmes have been successful in areas that do not have problems with land ownership. They have helped to ease pressure on the natural forest, to protect the environment, and to satisfy the fuelwood needs of the local communities concerned.

Moving to West Africa, the concept of natural forest management, which had been practiced since World War II to provide fuelwood, was revived in the Sudan savanna town of Ouagadougou. This move was made to supply wood from classified forests to meet the growing fuelwood needs. Agro-forestry is also being promoted throughout the semi-arid countries in the region, and is now practiced in most countries, including Sierra Leone. This approach could be further promoted by giving incentives to local people to grow more of their own fuel on their own farmlands and on community land. The short rotation of non-indigenous and indigenous trees for fuels, food, fodder, and other industrial products would be beneficial to most villagers.

The policy implications of these programmes could be far-reaching. Owing to the environmental costs and benefits associated with forestry/energy projects, many countries in Africa are adopting policies that will also modify current energy consumption patterns. Energy policies are being enforced by the appropriate ministries, such as the Ministry of Energy in Ghana, the National Electric Power Authority of Nigeria, and the National Energy Administration of the Sudan. Some of these policies try to improve efficiency by narrowing the fuel energy production ratio. Energy-saving devices, including improved charcoal stoves, have been introduced to replace the traditional stove gradually. Some of these stoves could save up to 50 per cent of fuelwood demand and reduce the energy bill of women in urban centres (FAO 1987).

Other policies have focused on reducing national demand through appropriate pricing policies, improving the current supply of fuelwood through a more efficient charcoal-manufacturing process, and reducing fuelwood consumption patterns by increasing the use of conventional fuels such as petroleum and its by-products. Attempts have also been made to increase the supply and use of new and renewable energy sources.

New and renewable energy development

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have great potential for the development of hydropower, which is the major source of electricity production (70 per cent). The rest comes from thermal plants, which are fuelled by oil or in some countries by coal. Despite this potential, electricity represents only 10 per cent of total energy consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa (FAO 1987). Even though it was modest, the region experienced a rapid growth of its electric power sector until the economic crisis of the 1980s.

The downturn that occurred had a negative impact on the economy and the electric power sector. The electricity production of SubSaharan Africa is far below that of other major developing regions. Of the amount generated, mining and processing industries absorb up to 80 per cent, with a limited amount being consumed by households. As the consumption rate of electric power increases, the level should be maintained so that many more urban and suburban populations may be supplied with electricity. But the question is, how can this be achieved?

Economic and financial constraints on African countries have been major causes of the inadequate development and slackening growth of the power sector. Being the poorest of the developing countries, the deterioration of their terms of trade has affected their economic growth, which is further worsened by population explosion. The necessary investments for the energy sector are enormous. At the same time it appears that electrification in rural areas could help slow down rural-urban migration, which is on the increase, and pave the way for the conditions for sustained economic development. However, given that rural electrification programmes are capital intensive and usually unprofitable, the possibility of providing electric power to most of the rural population is a forlorn hope. For it is doubtful whether SubSaharan Africa has the potential to mobilize adequate resources to develop this sector.

None the less, technologies now exist for generating electricity based on renewable energy sources apart from hydropower generation. Solar photovoltaic systems, wind generators, and gasifiers are a few of the examples. In 1981, a national conference was organized on New and Renewable Sources of Energy (NARSE) by the United Nations in Rome. A lot of enthusiasm about these resources was generated but one has to be cautious about the technological developments suggested at such energy meetings. The conference painted a rosy and conflict-free picture of solar and wind energy projects. To this end, between 1981 and 1986 there was dissemination of solar and other renewable energy technologies. However, because oil was cheap at the time and the fuelwood crisis had not yet reared its ugly head, not much attention was devoted to research and development of these appropriate technologies.

With the oil crisis, industrial countries made efforts to expand their development endeavours in appropriate technology. In Africa, solar technology was seen as a potential alternative. It was even assumed that African countries could bypass an era of fossil fuel and switch straight to solar energy, which is abundant, ubiquitous, and free (Goodman 1985). But this was not to be realized on a large scale because economic constraints hindered the diffusion of the NARSE technologies. Those NARSE technologies, such as solar cookers, that were initially acceptable appear to have lost their original attraction. Other applications, including solar crop driers, solar water heaters for institutional applications, passive solar heating, wind pumps, and mini-hydro and big-energy in the form of biogas, have, however, achieved some measure of success.

Considering the existing status of NARSE, it seems the energy sector in SSA will continue to be largely based on wood fuels. But this does not mean that alternative sources must not be pursued. Wood energy must be seriously considered as an integral part of a global and multisectoral energy strategy.

In this connection, increasing numbers of action programme initiatives are being developed at both regional and national levels to harmonize and improve rational forest management and wood-fuel availability. Among the national programmes are the Desertification Control Programme, the Environmental Action Plan, and the Tropical Forest Action Plan, which have wood fuel as one of their priority areas. The regional programmes include the Inter-States Committee on Drought Control, the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, the Southern Africa Development Coordinating Conference, and the Agroforestry Network for Africa Programme.

Donor agencies have been particularly supportive in assisting developing countries to formulate and execute environmentally sound energy policies. One such example is the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank. This project, which operates in many African countries, has an elaborate research agenda that emphasizes the promotion of energy-efficient technologies and environmentally benign fuels.


By all indications the fuelwood paradox is a critical issue in the sustainable development of Sub-Saharan Africa. As the terms of trade of the countries of Africa deteriorate, it becomes even more difficult to allocate foreign exchange to petroleum imports and the development of new and renewable sources of energy, which are more efficient. As such, we could not agree better with Brooks that:

We cannot conceive of development without changes in the extent or nature of energy flows of Africa. And because energy is so fundamental, every one of those change flows has environmental implications. The implications of this are profound. It means that there is no such thing as a simple energy choice. They are all complex. And they will all involve trade-offs. However, some of the choices and some of the trade-offs appear to be unequivocally better than others, in the sense that they offer more development and less environmental damage. (Brooks 1986; cited in WCED 1987: 173)

Wood fuels offer least potential in economic and industrial development even though they are the predominant household fuel. In the short term, energy policies should include strategies for the production and supply of wood energy to ensure its consumption in a more sustainable manner.

To formulate an effective basis for doing this, due attention should be given to analysis of the special needs and priorities of rural populations with reference to women and community participation in identifying actions as well as decentralized energy planning. In the process of fuelwood supply, modified patterns should be determined through studies at the national level. Remunerative producer prices should also be established to satisfy urban fuelwood needs. Coupled with this, national and local programmes, including dissemination of cheap and efficient charcoal and wood-burning stoves, should be launched to reduce wood-fuel consumption.

The development of modern fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas should be more fully explored and developed. National and international institutions should be encouraged to invest in the sector. Regional cooperation could also be explored as a useful instrument for furthering this goal and for enhancing energy development and independence in SSA. This cooperation has already been demonstrated with the formation of the African Petroleum Producers' Association (APPA) in 1987. Other regional groupings, as well as multilateral institutions, could help to accelerate sustainable energy development in the region.


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