Making Wood Charcoal in Africa and Deforestation

Making Wood Charcoal in Africa and Deforestation

Charcoal making is a life essential skill and big business in Africa.

Percent Africa uses for electricity production from coal, generators, hydroelectric, natural gas, nuclear and oil sources.

Year Year 2010 Year 2009 Year 2008
Electricity from generators no data no data no data
Electricity production from coal 36.8% 37.6% 39.4%
Electricity production from hydroelectric 14.1% 13.8% 13.3%
Electricity production from natural gas 28.6% 27.5% 27%
Electricity production from nuclear 1.7% 1.9% 1.9%
Electricity production from oil 10.4% 10.8%% 10%

African countries are facing fuel supply problems and charcoal remains essential for many households since petroleum fuels and electricity are likely to remain too expensive. Charcoal is big business in Africa. Africa produced 62 percent, 32 million tons of charcoal in 2017; a large percent was used for cooking food.

Cooking on a small charcoal grill in Juba South Sudan
Cooking on a small charcoal grill in Juba South Sudan

Charcoal is the solid residue remaining when the wood is carbonized and pyrolyzed under controlled conditions in a closed space. Charcoal in Africa is a necessity to purify drinking water, build a fire, and to dehydrate food since electricity and Refrigeration is still unavailable to over half of the continent. If you think charcoal is only good, for one thing, such as grilling you are wrong. However, if you're talking about store-bought charcoal then yes that can only be used for grilling if you want to grill a juicy steak or a hamburger or fresh corn using store-bought charcoal is perfect. But if you are doing any other thing than cooking you need to make your own.

Wood consists of three main components: cellulose, lignin, and water. The cellulose and lignin and some other materials are tightly bound together and make up the material we call wood. The water in the wood has to be removed before carbonization can take place. When the wood is dry and heated to around 536 degrees F or 280 degrees C, it begins to break down to produce charcoal plus carbon monoxide, water vapor, methanol, acetic acid, and other chemicals. This process carbonization continues until only the carbonized residue called charcoal remains.

Carbonization produces substances that can prove harmful and simple precautions should be taken to reduce risks. Over 600,000 Africans are killed every year by air pollution caused by the use of burning wood, and other organic matter for cooking. The gas produced by carbonization has a high content of carbon monoxide that is poisonous when breathed. The tars and smoke produced from carbonization, although not directly poisonous, may have long-term damaging effects on the respiratory system.

Making Charcoal in Africa
Making Charcoal in Africa
Charcoal making methods vary greatly but using the earth barrier method is the oldest method back to the dawn of history in Africa. Even today, it is perhaps used to make more charcoal than any other method. One important point to remember is when you burn wood in the open-air it turns into ash but when you burn wood in a closed space it turns to charcoal and then to ash. So this means in order to make charcoal you have to burn wood in an enclosed space and keep a close eye on it so it does not burn too long and become ash.

There are two distinct ways to use an earth barrier in the charcoal making: one is to excavate a pit, put in the charge of wood and cover the pit with excavated earth to seal up the chamber. The other is to cover a mound or pile of wood on the ground with earth. The earth forms the necessary gas-tight insulating barrier behind which carbonization can take place without leakage of air, which would allow the charcoal to burn away to ashes.

Small pits are useful for producing small amounts of charcoal from small, fairly dry wood. The method is employed at the village level in Africa. To burn charcoal this way a fire is first started in the pit and dry small fuel is added to make a strong fire. More wood is added to fill the pit, the fire continuing to burn steadily. A layer of thick leaves is placed over the wood and then dirt shoveled on top, sometimes pits are covered by a sheet of old roof iron covered with earth, allowing a few small openings for the escape of smoke and entry of air. The pit is left to complete the charcoal process in two days or less. The overwhelming bulk of Africa’s charcoal is still produced by the simple process briefly described above since charcoal, once it has been cured for two days, can be stored covered indefinitely.

One cause of forest depletion is poverty-related
African countries are
facing fuel supply problems
The issue with charcoal being the main fuel supply in Africa is deforestation. Charcoal is made from wood and generally, about five tons of wood produce one ton of charcoal. Therefore, charcoal making can only be an on-going industry where the wood raw material resource is managed to provide a continuous supply. For every person in a community who uses charcoal for heating and cooking about 1 acre of the natural high forest has to be set aside to provide that wood supply forever, this is not sustainable.

Forests cover nearly 23 percent of Africa’s land surface and five countries, DR Congo, Sudan, Angola, Zambia, and Mozambique account for half of this forested area. Forests and trees in Africa also account for 23 percent of global carbon stored in forests, and deforestation and forest degradation account for 30 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to warming.

Forests and the wildlife they contain are vital for the African tourism industries in certain sub-Saharan African countries, but they also are globally important. Global warming means that many dry areas are going to get drier and wet areas are going to get wetter. This imbalance will make subsistence farming, upon which millions of Africans depend, even more perilous. It will also make the food the crisis much worse.

One cause of forest depletion is poverty-related, caused by the clearing of wooded land for low productivity agriculture. In Africa, with 82 percent of households relying on wood and charcoal for cooking and heating, the demand is expected to increase by 20 percent over the next 20 years. Fuelwood and charcoal account for 90 percent of timber removals in Africa, the reality is that in Africa below the Saharan desert only 7.5 percent of the rural population has access to electricity. Uganda, for example, has lost over 50 percent of its forest cover in the past 30 years.

African countries are facing fuel supply problems; there is also no question that it was easier and cheaper for a large percentage of the population to obtain fuels 20 years ago. The reality is charcoal is essential for many sub-Saharan households since petroleum fuels and electricity are likely to remain too expensive. Charcoal plays an important role in both the energy sectors and the economies of most African countries. Charcoal is a very inefficient fuel to produce, however, the use of charcoal cannot be stopped but it can be reduced through implementing a variety of measures that promote the sustainable production of wood and efficient or alternative uses of charcoal. Deforestation has no long term economic development in bringing about changes in Africa from the use of firewood to the use of charcoal.

What is the difference between charcoal and coal?

Charcoal is made from wood. Charcoal is produced from heating wood to a high temperature producing a solid mass of dark matter that all water and other complex chemicals are removed. Coal is a mineral and a fossil fuel created from dead plants formed over many years. What coal and charcoal do have in common is both our limited natural resources.

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