Charcoal remains the most-utilised source of energy in Kenya, yet very few resources are directed towards its production, a situation that leads to destruction of forests.
So far, the government has policies that promote sustainable charcoal production and use, but does not give farmers good incentives to enable them take advantage of the existing scientific knowledge on tree species for sustainable charcoal production.
However, with the devolved system of government, it has become easy for different county governments to map out their landscapes and identify appropriate means of charcoal production and regulation, and make it a sustainable source of energy, employment and revenue generation.
Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security estimates that charcoal provides domestic energy for 82 per cent of urban households and 34 per cent in rural areas.
It is, therefore, a necessity we cannot do away with, but at the same time we cannot afford more indiscriminate logging of trees and forests that were not planted for the primary purpose of charcoal production.
Growing trees for charcoal production is a lucrative trade if an example of one scholar is anything to go by.
Dr Maxwell Kinyanjui (now deceased), a former statistician at the University of Nairobi in 2000 grew fast-maturing varieties of the thorny acacia trees on 27 acres in Kajiado County specifically for charcoal production.
After six years, many people who had dismissed him realised that he was in huge business when he harvested at least 1,000 bags of charcoal per acre.
At Sh1,500 per 40kg bag, the scholar made as much as Sh40 million in just six years from a piece of land where nothing else was growing due to tough climatic conditions.
County governments should, therefore, take advantage of the existing scientific knowledge on landscapes, forestry and agroforestry to promote tree farming specifically for sustainable charcoal production.
One way of doing this is by the county chiefs liaising with relevant experts to identify the nature of landscapes in their areas of jurisdiction and appropriate trees for charcoal production, then generate seedlings to be distributed to the farmers either free or at a highly subsidised fee as an incentive.
In dry-land areas, acacia species have proven to be more effective. In other parts of the country with agricultural land and reliable rainfall, Sesbania sesban, which also improves soil health by fixing nitrogen, is one of several trees that are good for agroforestry and fuelwood production.
In shrubby landscapes, a new technique known as Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) has proven to be effective for regenerating indigenous shrubs suitable for both fuelwood and charcoal production.
The FMNR involves a farmer promoting systematic regrowth of coppices on existing trees or from naturally occurring tree seeds in agricultural, forested and pasture lands.
It is only by engaging in meaningful tree farming for charcoal production, including in arid and semi-arid areas, that we will be able to protect forests and existing trees for the benefit of the environment and the future generation.
Esipisu is a science journalist specialising in agriculture and environment reporting. [email protected]