The challenge of replacing firewood with green energy in Angola

When driving along the roads in southern Angola, you cannot miss them – hundreds of bags of charcoal and firewood being sold by women and sometimes children.

Bags of charcoal for sale by the roadside are a common sight in Angola. Photo: Ralph Hodgson

Although there is a large-scale government plan to make electricity available to 93 per cent of Angolans, few people in rural villages have access to electricity. Instead they depend on charcoal and firewood, especially for cooking. 

This has a serious impact on the environment. Angola may have one of the largest areas of planted forest in Africa, but it has an estimated deforestation rate of almost 7 per cent, one of the highest in southern Africa.  

This is the result of burning trees, and felling wood for fuel and charcoal production. Deforestation and overuse of pastures result in soil erosion and loss of arable land which in turn put pressure on food production and security. 

The challenge is to find a more sustainable type of fuel for cooking. Switching from charcoal to gas could be a possibility, but it’s not a green energy solution. 

One alternative is the fireless cooker. This is basically a simple basket, insulated with local resources such as banana leaves or old clothes, which uses stored heat to cook food over a long period of time. The food is cooked on a traditional stove, before it’s transferred to the fireless cooker. However, this could severely affect the livelihoods of the women who collect firewood.  

Is there a solution, I wonder, that achieves both environmental and economic sustainability – one of Tearfund’s corporate priorities – and helps firewood sellers to find alternative forms of income?

A pregnant woman carrying firewood on her head. Photo: Tom Price

There are some interesting concepts being developed. For example, economically viable solar cookers and the CooKit. The CooKit is made from cardboard and foil shaped to reflect maximum sunlight onto a black cooking pot that converts sunlight into thermal (heat) energy. However, there are questions about the energy efficiency of these cookers and kits. And even at $3-7 they might not be affordable to poor people.  

It is essential that local people are encouraged to innovate with solar cooking and develop their own kinds of cookers that could be widely used by communities. This can create small businesses and generate income for these communities. It might just increase energy efficiency as well. 

In addition, there are battery rental cookers; as well as bio-digesters, which produce gas from waste but require the community to adopt gas as a fuel. You can read about how to turn woody waste into charcoal briquettes in Footsteps 107. Briquettes are cheaper than traditional charcoal, and burn hotter and for longer. What’s more, they do not require trees to be cut down. In Bangladesh, a partner organisation has experimented with using compressed rice husks instead of firewood for cooking. And in Zambia and Zimbabwe, Tearfund is exploring ways of using solar drying technology to preserve fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted. 

I am not an energy expert and have never seen or tried the CooKit or any of the solar cookers. But having travelled for a week in rural south and central Angola with Rev Azevedo of the Evangelical Congregational Church, I am convinced that: 

  1. We need to find alternatives for firewood and charcoal, especially for cooking. 
  2. These alternatives should involve those who presently collect and sell firewood and charcoal so that they have an alternative form of income. 
  3. These alternatives should be affordable and efficient so that the local people will use and buy them. 
  4. If at all possible, these alternatives should be produced locally so that the communities could develop some kind of manufacturing base. 
  5. The business proposition of producing and selling the alternatives should be explored so that it can encourage local innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Sadly, Rev Azevedo was unable to see how charcoal and firewood could be easily replaced by green energy. Finding a solution based on good business ideas and not aid practices has become a real passion for me. I’m convinced there must be alternatives somewhere! Please contact me if you have any ideas.

Sas Conradie
Rev Dr Sas Conradie is Tearfund’s Theology and Networking Manager for Africa: sas.conradie@tearfund.org