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Fueling Change in Africa

Wood fuels are key to easing food insecurity and creating economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
Firewood collection in African society is a gender issue because it is accomplished almost exclusively by women. Many women develop health issues as a result of carrying heavy loads many miles, day after day.

Firewood collection in African society is a gender issue because it is accomplished almost exclusively by women. Many women develop health issues as a result of carrying heavy loads many miles, day after day.

Faculty members in the college are conducting research in Africa aimed at making life on the continent better for its poorest inhabitants. Two recent projects represent important examples.

First, Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources, surveyed smallholder farmers in Kenya to find out whether they have the capacity and desire to play a major role in the scale-up of biofuel production from agroforestry.


Penn State researcher Michael Jacobson surveys farmers in villages across four counties in Kenya about their willingness to grow croton trees.

Croton trees--which seem to grow everywhere in Kenya--and the oilseeds they produce have the potential to improve rural livelihoods. Through the production of oil for energy and co-products, such as animal feed and organic fertilizer, croton represents an opportunity for poor farmers.

It turns out that most smallholder farmers are eager to participate. That is the conclusion Jacobson reached after meeting with hundreds of Kenyan farmers in villages across four counties in the central region of the country. Almost all households have croton trees on their land and are willing to produce croton nuts. More important, Jacobson noted, most would be willing to plant more croton trees.

"Many small farmers, although land constrained, have access to land to plant groves of croton trees if they become sold on the idea," he said. "If they knew that there was going to be a dedicated market for croton, they would certainly add trees to their lands."

The World Agroforestry Centre invited Jacobson to assess whether smallholder farmers could play a significant role in the scale-up of the business. Findings of the research, which were published in late November in Forest Policy and Economics, provide guidance for the development of a croton value chain that Jacobson believes biofuels entrepreneurs will use in their business plans.

In the second example, Ruth Mendum, director of gender initiatives in the college's Office of International Programs, evaluated how access to wood fuels for cooking should influence policy making to deal with food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. Mendum advocates for expansion of efforts to improve wood-fuel systems and make them more sustainable.

Although the health risks of collecting and using firewood and charcoal in traditional ways are real, policy makers, researchers, and donors need to address the sustainability and viability of the biomass used by the majority of people, Mendum believes.

Wood fuels are by far the most widely used for cooking in sub-Saharan Africa. On the continent as a whole, more than 90 percent of the population relies on firewood or charcoal. Charcoal is used mostly in urban centers, while firewood is the predominant form of wood fuel used in rural areas. But because wood burning is seen as outdated and environmentally unfriendly, governments have tried to persuade their citizens to use other fuels, such as liquefied natural gas and electricity.

"If we ignore this practice of wood burning, which is so widespread, particularly among the continent's poorest people, we risk putting together solution steps for food security that are not effective," said Mendum.

In her study, published in Facets, she recommends creating a financial policy to support wood-burning systems and developing agroforestry to ease the burden on wood gatherers.

-- Jeff Mulhollem