The wood energy sector: how to preserve forest ecosystems while ensuring energy security ?


Wood energy refers to the use of fuelwood or charcoal for heating, electricity or cooking. This sector contributes to the energy security of many populations, particularly in Africa.  It is a source of income for the poorest households but can put great pressure on biodiversity, particularly on forests.

The wood energy sectors include all activities related to the use of wood to produce heat or electricity. 6 BIODEV2030 countries have selected forest exploitation as a priority economic sector which contributes to the country’s loss of biodiversity and also to its development. Four have specifically selected the wood energy sector: Ethiopia, Guinea (carbonisation), Kenya (carbonisation) and Uganda.


wood energy stakeholders and economic issues

The number of people dependent on wood energy has grown steadily over the past three decades in Africa. Used directly as fuelwood or transformed into charcoal (carbonisation process), wood energy is the main source of energy for 83% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. In Ethiopia, it accounts for 90% of total energy use.

Commercial wood energy industries generate considerable turnover for local economies and are essential to the rural economy. In Kenya, for example, where the commercial charcoal industry alone generates US$1.6 billion per year.

The sector is a major contributor to GDP in sub-Saharan African countries. It also provides millions of jobs for producers, transporters, traders and sellers. In Uganda, the charcoal industry contributes $26 million to GDP. It employs an estimated 870,000 people, nearly 60% of whom are from rural areas. In terms of employment, if not in financial terms, its order of magnitude is comparable to that of cash crops.

Despite its ever-increasing socio-economic importance, the production and trading of fuelwood often remain essentially informal activities. The sector is not organised and its legal framework is insufficient or even unsuitable, which has harmful consequences for biodiversity.  


projected increase in wood production in Africa between 2015 and 2030

Source: Madon, Gérard. « Le bois, énergie de première nécessité en Afrique. Une ressource trop souvent négligée », Afrique contemporaine, vol. 261-262, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 201-222.

THE IMPACTS OF the wood energy sector ON BIODIVERSITY

The supply of wood energy is considered a major cause of deforestation, and more generally of loss of biodiversity. This is particularly true near to urban areas where demand is growing. In most sub-Saharan African countries, less than 5% of wood energy comes from dedicated plantations. As a result, almost all production is from natural resources.

This pressure has many consequences for the structure, function and biodiversity of forests (soil erosion and depletion, fouling of rivers with fines, landslides, etc.). Indirectly, this has negative effects on livestock, agriculture and access to water for both species and people.

However, the impact varies according to the type of collection. Intensive collection for markets is more devastating than rural collection of solid agricultural waste or dead wood for local consumption. 


of forest cover in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2014

Source: Madon, Gérard. « Le bois, énergie de première nécessité en Afrique. Une ressource trop souvent négligée », Afrique contemporaine, vol. 261-262, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 201-222.


Cash crop agriculture has negative impacts on biodiversity due to:

  1. Forest degradation, even deforestation: fragmentation and destruction of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, reduction of water resources and of all ecosystem services provided by forests.

2. Harvesting practices: the diversification of wood energy supply chains would reduce pressure on forests and make use of waste from other sectors (e.g. agricultural or timber sectors).

3. These impacts are mainly the consequence of an informal sector with little supervision: wood energy harvesting practices are unsupervised or only loosely supervised.


  • Establish dedicated plantations for firewood
  • Improve households’ energy efficiency
  • Provide technologies for the use of alternative non-wood biomass (agricultural waste, production and use of briquettes and firewood)
  • Allocate plots and establish collaborative forest management to meet families’ energy and food needs
  • Restore forests, especially with indigenous trees
  • Improve households’ access to energy-saving stoves
  • Improve the monitoring of the sector’s evolution and its impact on biodiversity
  • Implement regulatory reforms on land, forestry and taxation
  • Supervise and regulate the sector in order to reduce its environmental impacts and monitor it properly

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Photo credits: AFD