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Here are some brilliant alternatives to charcoal you need to try.

In the last one month, there has been a lot of hue and cry over two incidents where vehicle were torched in Kitui County for being nabbed transporting charcoal which has been banned in the region.

With a high dependence on fuel wood and charcoal for both households and business in Kenya, it is not surprising that we are still stuck in dilemma as what will do if all counties followed suit. But are we really short of alternatives? Our answer is a resounding NO!

We must admit to this one fact. When we use charcoal or firewood for cooking, we are contributing to global warming and deforestation.

Despite the availability of more modern energy sources, wood fuel is still used even by those who can afford other types of fuel. That notwithstanding, both charcoal and firewood are renewable energy resources if harvested in a sustainable manner. This can be achieved through pruning tree branches for firewood and using mature stems while leaving others to grow in the arid and semi-arid lands for charcoal production.

Many Kenyans use firewood and charcoal because they are cheap and readily available, and are sometimes a by-product of agricultural activity. Most rural homes have no access and can neither afford modern cooking fuel such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), thus, they bear the brunt of over-reliance on wood fuel.

Is there an alternative fuel for cooking?

One thing we must admit is that wood fuel cannot be completely done away with, especially in Kenya but we can however it can be used in a more manageable manner.

One solution lies in agroforestry which would supply wood from farms and if adopted, together with improved kilns and cookstoves, could make the charcoal sector more sustainable. This way, we can find a way to develop and sell charcoal-saving ceramic jikos (cookstove) and also promote commercial reforestation and efficient charcoal production.

Kenya also needs an alternative fuel which is sustainable, cheaper than charcoal or firewood and readily available. This is where briquettes come in.


Briquettes can be produced from agriculture waste such as coffee husks, saw dust, maize cobs, leaves, etc. which are dried and compressed for easy handling. Besides, it is cheap given that the raw materials are agricultural waste that have no commercial value and when not used, are just environmental pollutants.

These biomass briquettes are renewable in nature, economical, are more durable than charcoal and more resistant to handling and transportation. Besides, the use of biomass briquettes earns carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gases emissions into the atmosphere.

There are also briquettes which are made from clay, water and the small pieces of charcoal which are normally considered unusable and would have previously been considered waste. Although these types of briquettes rely on the production of charcoal, they are still a cheaper and ingenious use of a potential fuel that would otherwise go to waste.

Both the National and County governments should therefore seek ways to support entrepreneurs who wish to start, strengthen, or diversify into a briquette business.


In Mozambique, a company called CleanStar is offering clean burning cookstoves fuelled by ethanol derived from cassava. Though these cookstoves cost $30 (Sh. 3,000) -about 10 times more than a regular jiko, they offer incredible health and environmental benefits. 

They even built a cooking fuel ethanol plant in Dondo, Mozambique which provides area residents with a cleaner alternative to cooking with charcoal. The facility will convert surplus cassava supplied by local farmers into 2 MMly (about 500,000 gallons a year) of ethanol-based cooking fuel.

We can also explore the idea of looking into carbonising the ‘bagasse’ waste from such as those from sugarcane, a locally abundant resource that would cut out the importing of charcoal, making for cheaper, more environmentally friendly briquettes.

Apart from improving cooking fuel, we can also explore the idea of improve the burning system through dissemination of an energy efficiency cooking method that uses natural air forced combustion chamber to burn the fuel more efficiently. This provides higher temperatures, less losses and almost zero smoke production.

Going solar.

Kenya is so blessed with solar energy. We can take advantage of the ample sunlight to cook our food and heat water. It has been done in Mogadishu and Borama in Somalia where hundreds of families cook food.

They developed a solar cooker that is made of several mirrored panels set together to look like a satellite dish. These panels focus sunlight at the centre of the appliance enabling it to heat a cooking pot or an oven. The solar cookers, which are as fast as a gas or electric stove because of the size of the parabolic mirrors, can produce heat up to 200°C and can be used to prepare all types of foods.

The benefits of this system are countless – it provides 20 years of free cooking, it’s healthy and clean, families can boil drinking water and it saves Somali households an average of $20 per month in charcoal costs. The catch is that it needs to be in a place with a lot of sun energy.

Non-tree fuel.

There are other options of acquiring charcoal without necessarily from trees.  By using kilns, charcoal can be made from many other sources such as bamboo. Countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia are experimenting on a project to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as an alternative to timber charcoal. 

Bamboo grows quickly, cutting it does not contribute to deforestation and tropical bamboos can be harvested after just three years - rather than the two to six decades needed to generate a timber forest. 

The technology is being adapted to produce larger quantities of charcoal to serve a larger number of rural and urban communities as well as to produce bamboo charcoal briquettes that are ideal for cooking because they burn longer and produce less smoke and air pollution than ‘natural’ charcoal.

For Zambia, one company is spearheading a shift from charcoal and firewood to sustainable cooking fuel. The company came up with an integrated stove and pellet fuel system that uses local renewable biomass as its raw material.

By pelletising unwanted agro and forestry waste they are able to produce a 100% renewable bio-fuel. 

They produce clean, renewable cooking fuel for thousands of households from pellets made from rice or wheat husks, coconut shells, straw, peanut-shells, saw-dust or maize stover.

The Wonderbag.

The South African “Wonderbag” is a revolutionary slow-cooker developed to ease the social, economic and environment impacts of the current global circumstances.

It is a large non-electric bag that provides insulation to a cooking pot, retaining heat and allows food that has been brought to a boil, to continue cooking after it has been removed from the fuel source. It is said to save 30% of annual household income, reduce CO2 emissions and leads to less deforestation because families need less firewood to cook. It also reduces toxic fumes (which means less respiratory problems), saves water and reduces time spent cooking.

Empowering the rural folks.

To reduce the harmful effects of overusing firewood and charcoal, there is a need to empower the rural folks socially, economically and to free them from the burden of looking for firewood.

If this is done, they can dedicate that time to leisure, pursue education and economic activities. As lifestyles change, people will change how they cook. This means that the primary focus for the authorities should be on enhancing the technical capacity and skills of rural populace to turn their activities in charcoal, firewood and efficient wood fuel stoves into vibrant economic enterprises.

This will change the way people use energy in their household.

Parting shot.

Most people easily accept energy sources that are familiar them. They are very reluctant to newer and unknown options but it is good to note that there are savings and good tidings for the environment awaiting our paradigm shift.

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