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The Need for Sustainable Alternatives to Charcoal in the DRC

For millions in Africa and the Congo Basin, charcoal provides a readily accessible and inexpensive energy source for cooking and household heating. Population growth drives demand for the valuable “black gold” at an alarming rate, yet also fuels deforestation and biodiversity loss. Almost 80% of households in Africa depend on charcoal; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the number exceeds 90% (1;2). As electrification rates across sub-Saharan Africa remain low, charcoal continues to be the dominant source of energy. 

Charcoal Usage

Charcoal forms by burning wood without the presence of oxygen, which is usually achieved through the use of an earth mound kiln (3). The DRC’s forests, which account for 60% of Africa’s lowland forest coverage, provide easily accessible wood for charcoal production (4). While charcoal provides sustenance to households through its use in cooking and heating, it also supplies an economic livelihood to many. Over 300,000 people in the city of Kinshasa work in the woodfuel industry; in 2009, the country 54.7 million tons of the product (5). Charcoal remains a staple in the lives of millions of people in the DRC and across Africa, despite its role in the degradation of vital forested areas. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Environmental Impact

The demand for charcoal threatens vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife in the Congo Basin, including those found in Virunga National Park. The area became Africa’s first national park in 1925 in order to protect the region’s biodiversity, but constant conflict and unregulated logging in the area endangered its natural resources (6). Out of the eight million people living near the park, over 97 percent of the population relies on charcoal and firewood (7). The illegal charcoal trade serves as a lucrative source of income, generating an estimated 30 million USD every year (8). For the wildlife inhabiting Africa’s rainforest, charcoal production results in habitat loss for many vulnerable species. In Virunga, the illegal gathering of the biofuel directly resulted in the death of several gorillas in the park (9).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Health Concerns From Indoor Charcoal Use

In addition to the environmental effects of charcoal, household air pollution from cooking the fuel increases the risk of adverse health effects (10). Inefficient stoves and poor ventilation allow for pollutants and small particles of soot to build up and penetrate the lungs. According to the World Health Organization, over 3.8 million people die annually from illnesses caused by household air pollution, including pneumonia, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Moreover, household air pollution is attributed to almost half of pneumonia deaths in children under 5 years old (10). Despite the health risks associated with charcoal and other solid fuels, billions of people living in low-income countries lack alternate options for efficient energy sources.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives

In order to address the environmental and social burden of charcoal, efficient cookstoves and alternative energy sources must be made accessible. In 2017, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) implemented its “Eco Makala Project” in communities surrounding Virunga (11). The project provides cookstoves that use carbon more efficiently than traditional stoves (7). Other initiatives in the DRC focus on creating charcoal from sources other than wood. In 2018, a Congolese university student launched “Briquette du Kivu”, a company that makes eco-friendly charcoal out of organic waste (12). Similarly, an initiative by the Belgian development agency Enabel recently led workshops in the DRC teaching women how to make charcoal briquettes out of household substances (13). 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supporting Sustainable Development 

IDEAS For Us DRC promotes sustainability and environmentalism in local communities. Our team in the DRC, in addition to our branches in Rwanda and Uganda, works to replant forests throughout the region. Support global development by donating to one of our reforestation projects, getting involved in our eco-action projects, or subscribing to our newsletter. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/charcoal-africa-power-good-bad/ 
  2. https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/10/river-lined-smoke-charcoal-and-forest-loss-democratic-republic-congo 
  3. https://www.smallstarter.com/browse-ideas/how-to-start-a-charcoal-business-in-africa/ 
  4. https://rainforests.mongabay.com/congo/ 
  5. https://forestsnews.cifor.org/8310/woodfuel-causes-deforestation-in-congo-basin-yet-has-potential-as-renewable-energy-source#.U3Y5mVfySjU 
  6. https://virunga.org/about/ 
  7. https://news.mongabay.com/2016/08/a-dangerous-illegal-necessity-charcoal-reform-comes-to-virunga/
  8. https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/drc-charcoal-profits-fuel-war-east  
  9. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2007/08/congo-illegal-trade-gorilla-killing-animals/ 
  10. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/household-air-pollution-and-health 
  11. https://www.ecomakala-virunga.org/ 
  12. https://observers.france24.com/en/20180612-congolese-student-eco-friendly-charcoal