Conservation: Charcoal made from tree branches the future of Kenya

Kasigau is an area located in the South-Eastern County of Taita Taveta in Kenya.

It has been described as a gem inside the vast plains of Tsavo.  Its landscape comprises Acacia-Commiphora woodlands. It also has a high diversity of wild animals like dik-diks, gazelles, elephants, buffaloes, among others.

Being a semi-arid environment, majority of the residents here are pastoralists but also practice agriculture albeit for subsistence purposes.

Climate change has, however, had a greater impact on their farming activities. With poverty constantly stalking them, they have had to look for alternative ways to make ends meet. Unfortunately, one such venture has a direct impact on environment – charcoal trade.

Unsustainable methods of producing charcoal in Kasigau

Margaret Nyambura is a resident here and, by her own admission, is so reliant on proceeds from charcoal at the moment. She describes herself as a farmer, but says life took a different turn due to a prolonged drought in the area.

She resorted to charcoal trade. Nyambura says it’s a highly tasking enterprise with myriad of challenges, yet, she could not contemplate dropping it for the reason that she must cater for her children.

Burning charcoal, she says, is tedious; “Majority of the time, despite back-breaking work I have to contend with inadequate end product.”

And she is not alone in this business. Dennis Kiprono also depends on charcoal trade to put food on the table. Kiprono stays in Bungule area of Kasigau. To him, charcoal burning is easy to do compared to farming that is so dependent on rains, and which have been scarce in recent times.

On a normal day, Kiprono sells a sack of charcoal for Ksh.650. He acknowledges that the business is profitable as he can earn just enough money for him and his family to live on.

“The duration of burning charcoal is seven days to 14 days. This business gains more profit during the rainy seasons where a sack of charcoal costs Kshs.1000.” Kiprono says

This clearly is a bag of mixed fortunes depending on who you talk to. Yet, in Kasigau, men and women, both young and old, have been felling trees – a good raw material for charcoal, for many years. They do this totally unmindful, especially, of the value of indigenous trees therein and their contribution to the ecosystem.

Continuous logging of these trees became a major threat, and the economic, environmental and social impacts could be felt by all and sundry.

Unsustainable methods of producing charcoal in Kasigau

The entry of a community-based conservation company – Wildlife Works is creating positive change throughout Kasigau. The organization is educating the local community on the importance of conservation of wildlife and forests.

The organization also initiated projects that seek to address the perennial challenge of poverty, water scarcity, education, health, environment and human wildlife conflict.

To set the ball rolling, Wildlife Works immediately established a greenhouse in the area. Its major role was and is to promote agriculture around Kasigau. The greenhouse is responsible for growing organic vegetables, indigenous seedlings, grafting fruit trees.

Green Tea Charcoal Producers Association (GTCPA) Group from Kilibasi gaining knowledge at Wildlife Works greenhouse department.

Among other things, the organization trains locals to practice profitable farming methods such as vertical plantation of vegetables, organic farming, grafting of fruit trees, and nurturing gainful plants, for instance, Jojoba – a shrub that grows in this area, because it can be used to produce soap, shampoo, lipsticks, body lotions, make-ups among many other products.

“This farming method (vertical plantation) is the way to go because we conserve space and water.You also produce four times more, which translates to profits” Geroge Maina, greenhouse manager said

“The main goal of Wildlife Works is to protect the forest from deforestation and degradation. We encourage the community to look beyond cutting trees, burning charcoal, or killing wildlife.” noted Maina

And this, perhaps, is the greatest transformation that Wildlife Works has initiated in Kasigau. The organization regularly purchases and plants indigenous tree seedlings in Kasigau with the help of locals, who get paid to do this.

Wildlife Works reached out to persons who ran the illegal charcoal trade, brought them on board and trained them on conservation. Soon, it gave them jobs and they are now the ambassadors of conservation in the entire Kasigau.

The benefits have been significant to those who have embraced the organization and its activities. Majority have shunned charcoal burning and poaching in favour of vegetables, tomatoes, or onions farming.

“We reached out to the communities in Kasigau, convinced them not to burn charcoal in the forest. As Wildlife Works, we came up with an eco-charcoal facility project which sustainably produces charcoal.” Laurian Lenjo, the community relations manager, said.

Constance Mademu from the eco-charcoal department of the organization spearheads training of communities in Kasigau and its environs on the production of reliable and modern energy. The project area is based at Mackinnon, approximately 35km from Maungu.

The process here is simple. She says one only needs to find the right trees and trim their branches. And you don’t have to cut down a tree.

After collecting several branches, they are put in an open area to dry for two weeks. The next step is the carbonizing process. A drum kiln burns the pruned branches for three hours.

“The organization has brought in new kiln metallic equipment that will be more resourceful. It will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide out to the environment, hence more economical.” Mademu notes

Later, the burnt pieces of tree branches turned into soft chips of charcoal are kept in a storeroom to cool. A binder made of inedible cassava flour is prepared and charcoal chips are poured in for processing. Within minutes charcoal briquettes are pressed out. Thereafter, they are left to dry. The briquettes are packaged and sold.

Eco-charcoal

“We only conserve the environment, not cut down trees. The small materials we get from the unwanted branches are the ones we carbonize and produce briquettes.” says Mademu

“We urge all Kenyans to practice this form of environmental conservation and learn the way to produce the briquettes. Jua Kali sector can be able to manufacture the required equipment and related machines for the eco charcoal project,” she added.

Indeed, a youth group from Makwasinyi area of Kasigau has benefited through Wildlife Works’ partnership with Hadithi CBO and Rukinga Ranching Company Limited. Through CSR funding from Rukinga, the group has been trained in arc welding and grinding, and they are now operating a metal workshop.

 

Having gained necessary skills, the group is now able to recycle waste materials, before turning them into other valuable products.

“We now carry out awareness for other youth to shun the practice of cutting down trees to burn charcoal, and join the metal workshop group in Makwasinyi, gain skills that would improve their lives,” Josiah Kibwanga, the group leader, explained.

The organization has also opened its doors to everyone keen on environment. Groups such as the Green Tea Charcoal Producers Association (GTCPA) from Kilibasi are now promoting activities of Wildlife Works.

Green Tea Charcoal Producers Association (GTCPA) Group from Kilibasi gaining knowledge at Wildlife Works greenhouse department

“We used to have a bad name owing to charcoal burning, but things are different now. We received training on agribusiness and we have so far planted more than 10,000 trees in Kilibasi. Wildlife Works taught us how to plant seedlings, educate the community on protecting trees, and curb game meat poaching,” Charles Muthengi, the chairman of GTCPA, said.

Certainly, entry of Wildlife Works has pushed people to move away from destructive activities such as cutting of trees and poaching wildlife animals.

Logging for charcoal remains a nationwide challenge. Wildlife Works has shown that there are alternatives, and which are more beneficial both to environment and mankind and which should be embraced by all.

Edited by Eric Biegon

  

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