The Real Story on Charcoal for African Cookstoves

A woman sells charcoal in a Maputo market

You may have seen pictures of women in Africa cooking their daily meals on a small cookstove. These cooking implements look remarkably similar to the portable charcoal grills an American family might bring to the beach for an afternoon of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. Imagine using one of these at your kitchen table to prepare nearly every meal of your life.

In Mozambique (a coastal nation in Southeast Africa, just north of South Africa), the average lifespan is 47 years, the average income is $1 per day – minimum wage is a little more than double that, but high unemployment cuts the average in half. Charcoal is the cooking element of choice. Among market shoppers and sellers we met, charcoal was deemed to be the best cooking option because it is easily available and “not dangerous.” LPG (propane) is the main alternative and it has a bad reputation for unpredictable prices and starting the occasional home fire by explosion.

The market research of NDZiLO, a cleaner alternative cooked up  by Novozymes and CleanStar Ventures, reveals a different story: the standard charcoal stoves take a long time to heat up (20-30 minutes), the black soot makes women and their homes dirty; they must clean constantly, and the temperature of the stove is hard to control. That’s the satisfaction gap NDZiLO is betting will sell their new ethanol stoves which cost around $30 (subsidized) compared to $3-4 dollars for the cheapest stove in the market.

While deforestation is hardly on the radar of the consumers of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, it’s a massive contributor to global warming, ecosystem destruction, and topsoil dispersal.

Here is how the charcoal market works:

Unemployed individuals in the bush with few other options clearcut wood, cut it in to manageable cane-width strips around 5 feet long, and set it on fire in a closed container (or underground). Firing off the wood into charcoal actually makes the home fires more manageable and less smoky than burning straight wood might, although they are still pretty unwieldy and smoky. (Think about the difference between a bonfire and a charcoal grill as cooking implements). It takes 10 kilos of wood to make 1 kilo of charcoal.

This man will ride at least 60 km to drop off his charcoal bundle

After it’s fired off, the charcoal stick bundles travel by bike up to 100 kilometers (60 miles). Strong, motivated rural dwellers can make up to $10 for one bundle of charcoal they create and deliver to distributors in village centers. Those bundles will eventually fetch $100-200 in the urban markets, or even more if they are pieced out into meal sized portions.

The price of charcoal has doubled in the last 2 years because of increased scarcity: 15 years ago, charcoal traveled 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the city center, now charcoal makers must go much further out to find abundant forests to cut down and the charcoal can come from as far as 350 kilometers (217 miles) all the way from rural bush to rural distribution center to suburban distribution center to urban centers, using a mix of trains and human transport.

2-3 of these canisters are required to cook a single meal

Charcoal is used to cook meals in 95% of homes in Maputo – the highest income earners use pricier LPG. That’s approximately 178,000 households (each with around 5 members). The average family in Maputo spends $25/mo to buy charcoal, which is an annual spend of $53 million for one city’s habit. Maputo women use 10-12 coffee-can sized containers of charcoal for one day’s cooking. Monthly charcoal bills double for a woman with a recently weaned child, because she must heat up the stove to create gruel to feed him. Each of those coffee cans costs approximately .45c per can for those women who cannot afford to buy in bulk. At 12 or more cans a day, it can easily be the most expensive part of a family’s budget.

Charcoal stoves have about a 10% efficiency, meaning 90% of the heat is lost during the cooking process. A cheap charcoal stove costs $4-8 and lasts for 3-4 months.

According to the World Health Organization, indoor cooking with charcoal has the same health consequences as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day. A recent joint study by the University of California, Berkeley and the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that charcoal cooking will cause upwards of 10 million premature deaths in Africa by 2030.

Travel and accomodations provided by Novozymes
Image credits: Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

12 responses

  1. Great stuff. I have heard that with properly designed stoves, charcoal can be far less wasteful.  Is anyone working on re-foresting some of the areas closer to the city to replace these trees? Or is it a lost cause?

    1. I’m sure better stoves would make the charcoal lest wasteful, but when people are living on a dollar a day and the cheapest stoves cost $8 (and last 6 months) you don’t have a lot of choice. People who can afford to are going toward the propane stoves, or hopefully, ethanol rather than trying to make the charcoal burn cleaner. 

      I didn’t hear anything about reforestation efforts one way or the other. 

    1. CleanStar Mozambique just opened an ethanol distillery where they’ll turn locally grown cassava to ethanol to serve the stove market. Read more here:

  2. Would love to learn about the adoption rate of the new ethanol stoves and the deployment of crops such as soy to provide both food and fuel while reducing deforestation and eliminating a major health threat.

    1. The adoption rate is small right now – they have 500 stoves in use and pre-orders for 2700 more (but people didn’t have to pay to pre-order, so that number will likely drop some). That’s based on the text case of a single neighborhood where 80% of people pre-ordered. I’d call that a very small but extremely impressive sample. 

      The goal is to hit 100,000 in two years. 

      As for the food issue – the farmers who will supply the cassava are expected to use sustainable agriculture practices – crop rotation – with a crop of legumes and a crop of cereal growing alongside the cassava. I didn’t hear anything about soy, I think they’re trying to stick to local food products. 

  3. Just started working on charcoal production in the northern region of Ghana. It is lovely to note that stoves of charcoal serving does exist and just eager to learn more.

  4. very good article – In Kenya, people are slowly starting to realize that it is increasingly becoming more cost effective to grow tree’s, and only use the branches to carbonize into charcoal that’s the perfect size for the stove.
    This shift from buying energy to growing and refining your own is an easy one and more and more people are making it.
    We just have to keep trying to grow more tree’s then we can use.

  5. A well-made insulated charcoal stove uses 50% less charcoal than the open style, rocket stoves are efficient and creat no smoke, an insualted rocket stove uses even less fuel the fuel it uses is just twigs and waste wood that can’t be used for anything else. There is ways forward using existing technology.

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