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Can charcoal business be sustainable? Examples, challenges and opportunities in Africa.

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

A trailer loaded with bags of charcoal coming from Nigeria and heading to Niamey
Photo: Anders Roos.

On 13 October 2020, The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in partnership with the African Forest Forum (AFF) organised a webinar to discuss the opportunities for creating more sustainable charcoal value chains in Africa.

Growing population and urbanization increased charcoal consumption in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Charcoal is an affordable energy source and generates rural jobs and incomes. However, the use of charcoal causes significant downfall of health due to indoor air pollution and slashing deforestation and forest degradation.

Eight scholars were invited to discuss the core question ‘What is required to promote charcoal value chains that provide affordable energy and rural income, without degrading the forest resources?’ and to provide their recent experiences of working in different countries in Sub Sahara Africa. Based on the discussion at the webinar, this article gathers four key considerations for developing sustainable charcoal production and consumption.

Unpacking the value chain

The life cycle of the charcoal business is full of uncertainties. Who is involved in different processes of charcoal production and marketing?  How many hectares of forest are being cut? What is the difference between the selling price and the costs of production, including the raw material components? These questions can be addressed by following the charcoal value chain, from harvesting and production, to transportation, wholesale retail and to consumption.

This approach doesn’t only allow us to unpack the values of each step, but also makes the hidden actors visible. Such hidden actors include, for instance, illegal woodcutters, who are often migrant workers from neighboring countries, or international companies investing in charcoal production in the region, or women who work as charcoal traders or even a local cartel. According to Anders Roos, ‘most of the charcoal producers we met during the fieldwork were relatively poor. They have tried to earn their incomes to pay for food, clothes and school fees. While they were hoping to establish a sustainable charcoal production, where they for instance planted trees to replace what were cut.  However, the charcoal ban 2018 in Kenya has blocked the development of legal and mores sustainable charcoal value chains. Moreover, by unpacking the value chain, we can see that consumers are not only concentrated in cities, but also in rural areas. Rural value chain actors deal in smaller volumes but make up a large part of charcoal production and consumption.

Charcoal retailler in Dosso, Niger. Photo: Anders Roos

Improved technology

Better technology can improve the sustainability of charcoal value chains, including raw material production, transportation and marketing. For instance, a study in Kenya showed that mobile technology and network coverage are the key physical resources for producers, traders and transporters throughout charcoal value chains.

Moreover, developing a new technology like biochar could provide alternative energy product for rural households. A long-running participatory project with 150 Kenyan farmers tested the effects of biochar on the quality of the soil. Farmers who have a biochar stove can collect agricultural waste, like crop-residue, and small branches from forests and turn them into energy and biochar. Biochar stoves are energy efficient and save time on waste collection, which is often done by women. The triple wins of this method are 1) less smoke during cooking 2) less biomass input and 3) rich soil nutrient biochar! This technology may foster out-of-the-box thinking and farmers can start using crop residues, parts of the tree or farm waste as alternative cooking fuel. While biochar can be reused for soil improvement and carbon sequestration.

Trader selling regular cooking stoves (Jikos) in Voi, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Gender perspective in charcoal production

Women have a marginal position within charcoal value chains. A study from Kenya showed that women are the most vulnerable when it comes to uncertainties. For instance, when Kenya imposed a logging ban in 2018, it affected women who were mainly working in production and retail sectors the most. Women experienced more challenges from the ban due to the lack of access to and control over productive resources and social capital. Moreover, women who were working in charcoal business often came from poor households and didn’t have an alternative livelihood option to resort to in time of change. With limited financial independence, women can only be involved in localized, and less regulated markets. Moreover, the logging ban has affected the income of their husbands who were working in the logging industry. And with fewer remittances, the women’s businesses had lower cash flow.

Women’s vulnerability was also exposed by the current pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the whole value chain of charcoal industry. Border restriction has fueled production challenges, both in terms of transportation and migration of labour. With transportation bans and limited labour, but the same demand, charcoal prices grew and small-scale female retailers have been outcompeted by larger business owners due to their lack of capital and inability to obtain long-term loans.

A community group of charcoal producers and vendors at their tree nursery in Mwatate, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Livelihood or forest: trade off or both?

Overall, the charcoal business dilemma boils down to the trade-off between livelihood and forest sustainability. However, it is possible to meet both needs if the raw material for charcoal production comes from sustainable sources. While we are working towards creating sustainable charcoal businesses, a value chain approach may help achieve a more holistic understanding of the topic. Lastly, it’s important to remember about the importance of innovative thinking in biochar production, employing a gender-sensitive lense and developing sustainable sourcing.

The webinar was organized as part of the ongoing SLU research project, ‘Sustainable Business Models for Tree-based Value Chains in Sub Saharan Africa’, led by Prof. Anders Roos. The goal of the project is to generate knowledge about the charcoal value chain, more specifically, on its processes, actors, and their interactions. The research is conducted in Kenya and Niger in a participatory manner that involves various stakeholders.  The project aims to analyse resources, competences and business models among supply chain members to foster sustainable natural resource used and improved livelihoods.

Migrant workers exposed during Covid-19 crisis

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This blog post was originally posted at SIANI website.

Photo: SeaDave/Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing global pandemic may increase job insecurity and ruin rudimentary social welfare structures, amplifying the vulnerability of migrant workers.

I could not see many signs of concern when I was doing my fieldwork in Thailand and Myanmar in February – March 2020. Migrant workers in a Thai border city of Ranong were more concerned about such everyday struggles as ‘When to extend the work permit?’, ‘Where to find work today?’ or ‘How to send kids back to Myanmar when a few Burmese schools were forced to close down?’.

The fear of catching the virus was not a major concern. Due to the nature of temporary and short-term employment, migrant workers are more worried about losing their source of income than about health.

The ongoing pandemic, and the economic slowdown that’s likely to follow, will hit the poor harder than the rich, increasing the already stark inequality. Migrant workers are on the frontline of this crisis. Here is why:

Restricted mobility – Lack of movement may result in unemployment. Many countries are going into lockdown, so workers, the new and the returning, cannot travel to their destinations during the crisis. At the same time, millions of workers are looking forward to celebrating New Year with their family (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar share the same new year celebration mid-April every year). Like everybody else, migrant workers are advised against traveling home. If they do, they have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return. Two weeks of self-isolation is un-achievable when you and your family depend on daily wages and receive no compensation for the sick days.

Lack of social support – Social support and networks are crucial determinants of resilience. The importance of social capital is especially high in the time of crisis. Social exclusion is common to migrant workers, they rarely have social support networks in their host-communities, so accessing help in times of need is tough. For example, many migrant workers don’t speak Thai and don’t interact with their host communities on a daily basis, so they may stay behind on the up-to-date information about the COVID-19 spread and be unaware of the suggested precaution measures. What is more, even when migrant workers manage to build social relations in their host community, the crisis may disrupt collective memory production and weaken the capacity of newly formed social networks, meaning migrants members may be the first to get a cold shoulder.

Limited welfare – In Thailand, migrant workers have only recently started to receive a minimum wage, social security and health insurance. However, as the resources for testing and treatment of the virus are limited, migrant workers won’t be the first to access health services. At the same time, because of the short-term employment contracts and legal status in the host country, migrant workers will be the first to face layoffs too.

Living in limbo – Informal border crossing and illegal status provide migrant workers with an opportunity to earn a living without having to pay the fees for recruitment agencies or visas. However, living in the legally grey area may push workers into extremely vulnerable situations when crossing borders –  not only won’t they be covered by healthcare in origin and host countries, but also risk facing charges due to their illegal status. For example, it is still impossible to hold a record of how many migrant workers have lost their lives in Thailand after the tsunami of 2004.

What is social distancing? – Nearly 4 million Burmese, 2 million Cambodian and million Laotian labourers are working in Thai factories, construction sites, farms and fishing boats. These physical jobs require close contact. Minimum wages mean that migrant workers usually live in simple congested housing and in densely populated areas. The concepts of ‘social distancing’ or ‘working from home’ are far away from their everyday reality.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only accelerated the existing problems but also created many catch-22 situations for migrant workers in Southeast Asia and around the world.

These issues are complex and don’t have an easy answer, but one can start from granting migrants a legal status, allowing their families to be documented too. The implementations of the legalisation process should also reflect the reality of everyday life and the movement of migrants.

For instance, due to the nature of short-term employment, many migrant workers live by the border and move between Myanmar and Thailand every three weeks for 40 years and don’t get to live with their family. Besides, immigration regulations keep changing every year, which complicates any long-term planning, like education for their kids. And without basic education from either side of the border, the children of migrant workers have no means for upward mobility, so they follow in the footsteps of their parents, taking on low-paid unskilled jobs.

Additionally, the length of stay in a country for migrants is often attached to their employment status, which creates unbalanced power dynamics, favouring employers. However, one can promote labour rights by permitting migrant workers to unionize. This could allow for some forms of representation and negotiation between workers and employers. In the long term, improving legal status and worker representation will result in better welfare and improved living conditions.


Sustainable fish farming? Yeast and flies come to the rescue

By: Alin Kadfak SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at SLU
This blog was originally posted at SIANI website

Photo: Leon Harris/ Gettyimages

Aquaculture has a tricky reputation; the fish meal is one reason why. But with new research from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the unsustainable fish feed can become a problem of the past.

Low in saturated fats and high in omega-3, fish has become a popular food choice. Some regions of the world, like Oceania or coastal countries in Asia and Africa, have always had fish-based diets, but recent trends in healthy eating among Americans and Europeans has driven the demand up. Now, we eat fish twice as fast as the fisheries can reproduce. So, unfortunately, the change of heart in eating habits depleted global fish stocks. And, more and more of the fish we eat comes from fish farms.

But the origins of fish feed are yet another sustainability controversy.

Quality fish meal is essential for optimum development, growth and reproduction of the fish. Traditionally, fish meal has been made of wild-caught fish or by-products of fish waste. This conventional method doesn’t only put pressure on marine resources, but also competes for food security because local people could eat the small nutritious fish, instead, it is used for animal feed.

Plant-based feeds were developed to address these concerns. And in the last three decades, plant-based feeds took over animal-based feeds and became the main ingredient for fish meal across the aquaculture industry.

However, this solution brought other challenges: the production of plant-based feeds increases the pressure on land. For example, soy, which is often used for making fishmeal, requires a lot of land, fertilizer and freshwater. Soy farming is notorious when it comes to deforestation in the Amazon and environmental destruction in the Brazilian Cerrado. That is why, for instance, Norwegian farmed salmon producers banned fish meal ingredients made from Brazillian soy.

So, the fish industry is still on the lookout for a better protein substitution.

Photo: Martin Schotte / Pixabay.

Alternative protein for farmed fish

Using microbes, like yeast, fungi, microalgae and mollusks to feed farmed fish has gained attention in recent years. These four categories of microorganisms are promising and can potentially help us make a breakthrough in the sustainability of aquaculture. For one thing, these microorganisms can feed on various carbon sources, including waste streams from wood industry or marine productions.

SLU aquaculture research team partnered with scientists from Norway, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, Tanzania, India and Rwanda to develop sustainable aquaculture feeds. Micro-fungi is the most promising microbes – the team can replace 20% of soy-based feed for salmon with the protein extracted from micro-fungi without any side effects. SLU researchers are also looking into making quality fish feed from insects that feed on household waste. Some promising research with black soldier flies has already been done and applied at scale to treat organic waste and to produce animal feed at the same time. Another fishmeal substitution could be muscles, and their use has been successfully tested by researchers at Södertörns högskola, another Swedish university.

The pilots are yet to be scaled up and industrial development of the sustainable fishmeal will certainly require closer collaboration between the industry and the researchers as well as further research on its own. However, insects, yeast and fungi can be another rising star in the kingdom of alternative protein, at least in the field of animal feed.

What can consumers do for now?

KRAV, Swedish Sigill and ASC are the main sustainable aquaculture labels available in Sweden today. Apart from fish meal, which is considered to be main focus in the sustainability of aquaculture, these standards also take into consideration animal welfare (if the fish is grown in a cage and the use of medicine), land and water pollution, and slaughtering practices. For instance, KRAV is currently working on their new KRAV label in aquaculture to improve the feed the slaughter method. ASC’s standard includes limits on the use of antibiotics, water purification and traceability to the cultivation site. ASC has also added social criteria to their standard, such as freedom to form an association and a ban on child labour. Svenskt Sigill is a new label, which focuses mostly on fish that grow in closed systems on land. Consumers can study and pay attention to these labels before buying aquaculture products in Sweden.

So, who knows, maybe we are at the crossroads for the next paradigm shift in aquaculture feeds!