The production of charcoal is blamed for deforestation across Kenya. Dry land areas, including those of Taita Taveta county, are hard hit by charcoal production because the inhabitants lack other means of income.
Charcoal production is banned in Kenya but the consumption of charcoal is perfectly legal. This creates a legal contradiction because people burning trees to produce charcoal get arrested while those consuming charcoal or selling it in the markets can do it openly.
Charcoal producers in Taita Taveta are accusing the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) of regularly conducting raids where sacks of charcoal are carried away by the officers. The charcoal producers, who requested anonymity, say they are never taken to court raising questions as to what KFS officers are doing with confiscated charcoal.
About 58% of households in Kenya consume charcoal, according to a paper published in the Energy, Sustainability and Society journal. Another study found that 80% of urban households in Kenya depend on charcoal for cooking. Charcoal vendors can be found everywhere in Taita Taveta county, more so in the urban areas such as Voi. The use of charcoal has spread into the rural areas because charcoal is a more convenient fuel for cooking compared to firewood.
The charcoal producing areas of Taita Taveta County are mostly found along the Nairobi – Mombasa highway and the Voi – Taveta highway. The centres include Miasenyi, Maungu, Ndii, Manga and Landi. In the interior parts of the county, charcoal is produced at Sagala, Mgeno, Kishushe and surrounding dry lands.
Further research has found that most of the wood used to produce charcoal in Kenya is obtained from private or community land rather than gazetted forests. This calls for both national and county governments to acknowledge the widespread use of charcoal followed by steps to ensure that charcoal producers harvest trees in a sustainable manner.
Baringo county is well known for its problems with the infamous ‘Mathenge’ tree, scientifically known as Prosopis Juriflora. The tree was introduced in a re-afforestation program but grew and expanded beyond expectation. Mathenge tree is today a nuisance in Baringo but there are efforts encouraging charcoal production using the tree. In that way, the community would be controlling the growth of the trees while earning money from it.
Mathenge tree is also found in the drylands of Taita Taveta county. The tree species is doing really well around river beds, foothills and along the roads in the county. This is a tree that can be sustainably harvested for charcoal production because it regenerates and grows really fast. Some charcoal users do not like charcoal from the Mathenge tree because they say it, “burns too quickly,” but this is where energy saving jikos can play a role in energy efficiency. Energy saving jikos generate more heat than normal jikos but use smaller amounts of charcoal.
Forest guards are certainly well within their roles to confiscate charcoal. However, it is worth remembering that people living in the drylands do not have many options to earn a living. Rains are unreliable and the drylands are prone to human-wildlife conflict which can make farming a futile activity.
The Kenya Forest Service should therefore be at the forefront in developing ways for communities to plant and make a living from trees. When charcoal production is brought into the mainstream, KFS could regulate the business while eliminating opportunities for rogue officers to engage in extortion.
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