With over 155 million hectares of dense humid forests, the Congo Basin is the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon. Much of this forest can be found within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which holds a portion of the Congo Basin equivalent to the size of Colombia. The DRC lost nearly 5 million hectares of tropical primary forests in the last 20 years and continues to face the threat of deforestation. In 2020, the DRC lost 490,000 hectares of primary forest cover, with Tshopo Province being the most affected in the country.

A major contributor to this loss is the unsustainable exploitation of forests to meet growing charcoal demand. Charcoal is produced by cutting and burning timber. Logs are stacked in traditional, low-efficiency kilns where the high heat turns them into charcoal. An expanding population with a growing need for food, energy and economic development has led to the rapid growth of the charcoal industry.

The charcoal (also known as “makala”) industry in the DRC involves a wide variety of actors. Actors from the public sector include ministries and state agencies related to energy, reforestation, transport and tax. The private sector actors include loggers, manufacturers, transporters, retailers and traders. Charcoal producers range from people in urban peripheries producing large volumes to individuals in rural populations who typically produce small volumes as a by-product of slash-and-burn agriculture to generate additional income.

Improving the sustainability of charcoal production in the DRC will require navigating and addressing a number of challenges. These challenges include:

1. Energy Demand

Charcoal is mainly used to meet the DRC’s domestic energy demands, as only 9% of the population has access to electricity. For more than 90% of the population, charcoal or fuelwood logging remains the principal source of cooking energy for households and street vendors. Businesses such as bakeries, breweries, restaurants, brickmakers and aluminum forgers also depend on firewood or charcoal for their daily operations.

One CIFOR study revealed that the market of Kinshasa, a city in the DRC, receives 4.8 million cubic meters of fuelwood and charcoal per year, and the city of Kisangani receives another 200,000 cubic meters. This has resulted in increasing pressure on the natural forest ecosystems in the landscapes surrounding cities.

2. Incentives to Clear Forests for Agriculture

The DRC’s peri-urban landscapes, which are areas immediately adjacent to cities, are hotspots of forest conversion for subsistence shifting agriculture. Shifting agriculture — or the process of clearing forest, planting crops and then leaving the land to fallow — is responsible for 94% of the tree cover loss in Africa. As the result of increasing populations and commercialization of agriculture, areas for shifting agriculture are expanding. Charcoal sales also play a role in this cycle. Individuals clearing land for subsistence agriculture — often Indigenous landowners — will convert the cleared wood into charcoal as a vital additional source of income.

3. Economic Opportunity

Many people also rely on charcoal for income beyond a subsistence activity. As a result of high demand, charcoal production has evolved into a growing regional industry. Charcoal production in Africa, which accounts for two-thirds of global production, nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

The charcoal industry is an important economic driver in areas where settlements and forests intermingle. Over 300,000 people in the DRC are employed by the woodfuel energy sector, and one study shows revenues related to charcoal production account for 75% of producer’s household incomes in Kinshasa.

4. Complex Production and Stakeholders

The huge variety of actors in the sector make it difficult to implement measures that improve sustainability. The charcoal sector includes producers, transporters, wholesalers and the provincial divisions of national government agencies, all of whom influence the production and sale of charcoal in unique ways.

Traders and retailers are a particularly influential group of actors. They negotiate the price of standing trees, recruit loggers and set the selling price of makala.

Like with any sector, it is important to understand how these many actors influence demand and whether their practices are sustainable. Having a clearer picture of the sector can enable better regulation and transparency to improve practices.

Reforming the Charcoal Sector to Safeguard DRC’s Forests

The biodiversity and carbon storage capacity of the Congo Basin’s forests are important, not only for the region, but for the globe. Rising unregulated demand for charcoal poses a threat to these vital forests and their critical functions. Finding a path forward will require addressing energy needs, developing alternatives to charcoal, implementing sustainable farming practices, restoring degraded lands, creating economic opportunity outside of the sector and untangling the complexity of the industry at large.

WRI is working with the Good Energies Foundation on mapping important stakeholders in the charcoal industry, understanding how the industry works and nurturing a dialogue between actors to identify potential actions for improving governance in the nation’s charcoal supply chain.

Energy in the DRC doesn’t have to come at the cost of forests. With the right governance, resources and action across the charcoal supply chain, the makala sector and those who depend on it can function in a more sustainable, forest-friendly way.

Read more about WRI Africa’s work here.