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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Wandiga

Kenya Sustainable Cities - Biomass Fuels Material Flow Analysis

Material Flow Analysis is a term that sounds very intimidating. However, material flow analysis is an important concept that should be part of our daily thinking and management. 

At the basic level, what we try to do with material flow analysis is measure 1. where do things come from?, and, 2. where do they go?  For example, if we are to perform a material flow analysis of charcoal in Kenya, we learn that charcoal flows from the rural areas to the informal settlements in Nairobi because there are many people who live in informal settlements and do not have access to wood or fuel for cooking. 

Charcoal Value Chain Analysis - Kenya Forest Service (August, 2013) Value Chain Analysis.pdf

Nairobi is a major market for charcoal in Kenya; a greater proportion of this charcoal is produced from as far as Lamu and Kwale counties. Other counties where charcoal is produced for the Nairobi market were Kitui, Kajiado, Narok and Baringo.

We also learn that there are different groups of people that the charcoal goes to: 

A. The consumer who is using a cookstove (jiko);

B. the seller who distributes charcoal wholesale (large quantities) or retail (personal use quantities);

C. the transporter who moves the charcoal between the producer and the buyer or seller. 

What we want to know from an environmental health and safety perspective is: 

Quantities of demand and supply - how much charcoal is being made? how much charcoal is being used? (we want to know if we are wasting charcoal by using too much or making too much) 

Level and type of emissions and particulate matter - how much smoke is coming from the charcoal? (smoke has chemicals that give us the diseases we know as asthma and also what we call green house gas emissions that are creating the climate change which is giving us trouble with agriculture) 

Raw material availability - where is the wood that is used to make the charcoal coming from and how many trees are left after the charcoal is made? (this is important not just because it is important to have trees for the benefit of rain, cleaning air, preventing soil erosion and making healthy micro-organismes but also so that we make sure that there are enough trees to keep making charcoal) 

This analysis can be done at a country level, at a county or sub-county level and between countries. 

The reason for the current charcoal ban in Kenya is that the analysis showed the numbers were very bad on all three indicators. We were using a lot of charcoal, we were wasting the charcoal we were using because the kilns to make the charcoal and the cookstoves are inefficient, emissions and particulate matter that create problems were too high, the forests from which the wood for charcoal was coming were disappearing across counties in Kenya and even from our neighboring countries. If we kept up without the ban, there would soon be no trees for anyone to make any charcoal. Then the cost of alternative fuel would be very unaffordable (even worse than with the ban on charcoal) and we would be rushing last minute to try and find solutions for all these problems.  

It is important to know that before the ban, attempts were made to allow for sustainable charcoal production and the problem kept getting worse. Here are Kenya Forest Service data from 2016:

...annual demand exceeds 1.6 million tons a year.

The National Environment Management Authority estimated biomass energy supply at 15.4 million tons against demand of over 38.1 million tons in 2004, reflecting a 60 per cent deficit.

In summary, yes, the price of a bag of charcoal has skyrocketed but what price would you be paying if there were no trees left anywhere? What charcoal would you be using? 

We have been using trees like someone who spends money continuously without checking if there is any income or any savings to keep spending. What is different is that a business can generate cash flow within a few years but a tree needs a minimum of 5 years to 10 years (depending on the species) before it can be sustainably harvested for use as charcoal or other commercial products.  It is best if we leave the tree trunk healthy so that the tree can continue to grow and we have a raw material source that grows bigger over the years. At a minimum we need to make sure that if we have 5 trees, we only need to use 2 trees completely so that what is left are three trees (one more in number than the two we used). This is the surplus production mindset that we need to use to replace our current deficit production mindset.  

With a surplus production mindset we are not making in excess so we can waste raw material.  We are producing in a way that regenerates the raw material so that we always have more raw material than we need even when demand increases (e.g. population growth).  Think about being wealthy and always having more money than you need to cover your living expenses.  The same can be done with natural resources.  Our ability to create a wealthy and healthy lifestyle is dependent on our ability to continually have an abundance of natural resources. 

Sooo, we love nyama choma, we love the taste charcoal gives to our food, we want our fuels to be affordable. In order for this to happen, we need to make sure that the raw materials we use to make our fuels are abundant. Petrol is expensive because we are running out of the fossil fuel sources because the fossil process takes millions of years to make the crude oil. If we finish our trees the same way we have finished our crude oil we will be in very big trouble and affordability will be the smallest of our worries. 

Have a look at the videos on this website which help you better understand how to develop sustainable charcoal:

The goal of Kenya's current charcoal ban is not to destroy the charcoal business model but to force us to stop bad practices immediately and put our full attention on improving the business model from the tree to the jiko. We want charcoal to be healthy, abundant and affordable AND we want trees to be abundant even inside our cities and informal settlements. 

The challenge for all of us is to create ways that make all of this happen quickly. Here are some business model ideas to get you started:

What are your ideas for making sure Kenyan charcoal production meets the following 7 criteria simultaneously?:

Creates more trees than it uses 

Uses less wood when produced

Uses less charcoal when burned

Is more affordable to make and consume

Creates no green house gas emissions that lead to climate change 

Creates no air particulate matter that makes us sick

Is a source of good jobs that improve Kenya's economy

The big question: how do we change our behaviour so we always think about material flow analysis and continually work to improve how we make things instead of waiting until things get so bad that a ban is needed to make us change our behaviour? 

Images Courtesy of 

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