Sustainable woodfuel systems: a theory of change for sub-Saharan Africa

Mary Njenga, Robin R. Sears, Ruth Mendum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Charcoal and firewood, together comprising woodfuel, are key in the cooking energy mix in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Charcoal is made by burning wood under controlled oxygen to arrive at a product high in carbon. Firewood is wood burned directly to provide energy. Wood energy, which is gaining in popularity as a sustainable fuel in developed countries, is characterized as a driver of land degradation on the African continent. Instead of wishing for the demise of woodfuel due to its associated negative health and environmental impacts, a systems thinking approach argues that improving technologies and efficiency in wood production, charcoal and firewood processing, transport and trade, and utilization in a circular bioenergy economy meets a range of needs while conserving the environment. This article outlines a sustainable woodfuel theory of change (ToC) that describes how woodfuel can be made sustainable rather than being dismissed as a transitional fuel on its way out. The ToC is based on the knowledge that no energy system is without flaws and that technologies exist for real quantifiable improvements in woodfuel systems while filling the energy-poverty gap. A bold rational decision must be made in rethinking woodfuel in SSA, as failure to advance woodfuel technologies undermines global efforts directed towards land restoration and climate change mitigation. We recommend that an improved and sustainable woodfuel system should be considered as an acceptable modern energy source under SDG 7.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number051003
JournalEnvironmental Research Communications
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Food Science
  • General Environmental Science
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Geology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Atmospheric Science


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