Tackling the charcoal problem - a story from Naibunga

According to the UN, Africa is losing its forest cover twice as fast as the rest of the world. A third of the continent's forests have now been lost - and many blame the charcoal industry.

In sub-Saharan Africa, just 7.5% of the rural population has access to electricity. Charcoal is not only a primary energy source, but also a livelihood for many with few alternatives. In Kenya, charcoal generates around $200 million in income every year. (BBC article, Africa's Burning Charcoal Problem, Sept. 2009)

For the Maasai community of Naibunga Conservancy, their forest and bush cover helps prevent soil erosion, hosts wildlife, and provides opportunities for non-fuel related income, such as honey. "You're not supposed to cut trees in Maasai culture, it's a curse. If you need firewood, you're supposed to prune the tree, or collect dead wood" says Richard Kasoo, regional coordinator for NRT West. But the promise of an income overrides cultural and legal stipulations for many people in the arid and semi arid lands of northern Kenya, and Naibunga was no exception. 

Naibunga landscape

Naibunga landscape

"It mostly started when the community invited 'outsiders' to come and collect wood for charcoal, which in turn cleared areas for grazing, and pathways for kids to go to school. It worked for a while. Then some of the local people started to learn how to make charcoal themselves, realising it was quite profitable" says Richard.  As more forest was cleared, the rangelands that the cattle depended on became increasingly degraded. What's more, the invasive opuntia stricta cactus started to spread aggressively, preventing plant growth and threatening wildlife and livestock.

In 2015, the Naibunga board decided something had to be done. The board consists of the chairman of each of the 9 group ranches that make up the conservancy. Each went back to their constituents to conduct awareness and discussion meetings. With a grant of KSH 4 million, the conservancy employed 'opuntia eradicators' - people that used to depend on income from charcoal to destroy the invasive cactus. At the same time, NRT Trading's BeadWORKS business started to work with women's groups in Naibunga, providing families with alternative income and stimulating other enterprise. 

Rangers were given instructions to arrest anyone found burning charcoal in the conservancies, and take them to the chief. They adjusted their patrols accordingly, but petty corruption and inefficiency rendered their efforts largely ineffective. So instead, they took to burning confiscated charcoal on the spot. "This is what had the biggest impact" says Richard. 

Naibunga rangers on patrol 

Naibunga rangers on patrol 

However, this proactive approach didn't go down well with corrupt officials. In mid 2015, four Naibunga conservancy rangers were arrested and taken to the local station, accused of buying and selling charcoal themselves. "The whole community marched to that police station" recalls Richard, "the Kenya Wildlife Service got involved too, saying they needed these rangers to continue their work." The case went to the County Commissioner. "He concluded that these rangers were doing exactly what they had been mandated to do and demanded their release immediately. The whole story of Naibunga's charcoal burning changed from that day." 

Boards from Leparua, Nasuulu, Nakuprat-Gotu at Naibunga

Boards from Leparua, Nasuulu, Nakuprat-Gotu at Naibunga

The extraordinary success story of Naibunga inspired the board of directors of the nearby conservancies of Leparua, Nasuulu and Nakuprat-Gotu. Faced with similar challenges, they organised a visit to Naibunga in late 2015.

"They were just amazed, they didn't want to leave" laughs Richard. "They could see what a change it has made. They arrived having lost all hope for preventing charcoal burning in their conservancies, but they left inspired and full of hope. We even helped them draft a plan to tackle charcoal burning in 2017." 

Find out more about how NRT Trading are helping communities to develop sustainable alternative economies here