Created in 1925 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest park and most biodiverse protected area. It is home to 218 mammal species, 706 bird species, 109 reptile species and 78 amphibian species. It also serves as refuge to 22 primate species — of which three are great apes, including 1/3 of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. But Virunga and the plants and animals it protects are under intense pressure from population growth, poverty, unemployment, poor governance, insecurity and the use of fuelwood and charcoal that contribute to deforestation.

According to the land-use plan for the Virunga landscape developed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2013, 97% of the 6 million people living around the park depend on biomass like firewood and charcoal. A more recent study found that the residents of Goma city, which is located in close proximity to the park, consume more than 105,000 tons of charcoal per year ($55.9 million, cost spends by residents), 56% of which is illegally sourced inside the park.

Access to energy alternatives is critical to the sustainability of the park. In 2020, USAID awarded a grant to Bboxx — a UK-based company that tackles energy poverty and the lack of access to essential products and services across Africa — to promote Pay-as-You-Go Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG). Pay-as-You-Go is a smart meter technology to help resource-poor households or any other consumers to adopt LPG by allowing them to pay only for what they consume. Replacing charcoal with LPG in Goma City could reduce forest loss and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Using biomass for cooking contributes to deforestation, generates indoor air pollution and emits greenhouse gases. LPG remains a cleaner option, and has a higher heating capacity, which reduces cooking time and money spent.

Assessing If Promotion of LGP Reduces Charcoal Use in Goma

Since September 2020, WRI has been providing technical support to Bboxx to monitor the uptake of LPG for cooking to assess whether the adoption of LPG by the populations of Goma City reduces pressure on the park’s forests.

Forest cover loss in Virunga National Park

In August 2021, WRI conducted a study of the baseline charcoal consumption for cooking for households and restaurants in Goma City, with the plan to conduct quarterly surveys after Bboxx promoted Pay-as-You-Go LPG to assess the impact on charcoal use.

Bboxx engaged with the population to better understand the barriers to the adoption of LPG, in particular, i) the upfront investment required in cookers and canisters, ii) the mismatch between the quantity of LPG that must be purchased at a time and consumer income patterns (Consumers in these communities do not have consistent and secure income — however, the current LPG purchasing model requires them to purchase at least a month’s supply at a time and, unlike with the purchase of charcoal, they are not able to purchase small quantities or a day’s supply). iii) concerns over the safety of the fuel, iv) inconvenience due to heavy canisters and iv) a lack of availability and awareness.

As this engagement continues, the majority of Bboxx customers are aware of Pay-as-You-Go LPG, including its affordability. Because customers can pay daily for small quantities, there is no need to invest $250 in canister and cooking equipment upfront. Another benefit is accessibility, meaning canisters are delivered and installed by Bboxx at customer houses. This way, customers can try LPG and decide if they want to continue using it.

In October 2021, WRI conducted the first quarterly charcoal consumption monitoring survey in Goma on Bboxx customers. This survey showed that between July and October 2021, the use of charcoal decreased from 67 kg to 47 kg/month for households, and from 339 kg to 223Kg/month for restaurants. The study also highlighted the factors limiting a faster shift from charcoal to gas: high prices (31.5%  of respondents), cooking habits (16.2%), inaccessibility of the gas (14.1%), high risk with the use of gas (13.7%), difficulty in handling gas kits (12.4%) and household low income (12%).

Will Reducing Charcoal Use Help Mitigate Deforestation in Virunga National Park?

At the same time, WRI also conducted a baseline study using Global Forest Watch data to assess the current status of forest cover in Virunga National Park and adjacent landscapes. This study revealed that from 2016 to 2020, the tree cover loss in Virunga was about 17,080 hectares, representing 2.1% of the park’s total area. This represents an average of 3,416 hectares per year and corresponds to 9.3 megatons (Mt) of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions over five years with an average of 1.8 Mt per year. The data regarding the forest cover loss was validated and confirmed by local field actors during a consultation workshop organized by WRI in Goma in October 2021.

Household using LPG for cooking meals
A household that opts for Pay-As-You-Go LPG, like Bboxx, when cooking can reduce investment in materials up front, making it a suitable alternative to charcoal. Photo by Bboxx.

While it is still unknown whether reducing charcoal use in Goma will help reduce deforestation in Virunga, we now have the baselines and data to measure this. As the next stage of the project, WRI will use the results of the Virunga baseline study to assess if the shift from the use of charcoal to the use of gas for cooking in Goma City contributes to the reduction of tree cover loss in Virunga and adjacent landscapes.

Integrated Solutions Reduce Pressure on Virunga’s Forests and Biodiversity 

The wood energy trade is an important economic activity for local actors. In an assessment of the charcoal supply chain in 2020, WRI found that approximately 25,000 people are involved in the wood energy trade and about $30 million USD are generated by this sector every year.

If transitioning from charcoal to LPG proves to be effective in reducing deforestation in Virunga National Park, it will be critical to promote alternative energy options that are not linked to deforestation and have lower emissions than charcoal more widely across communities in DRC. The goal of this to reduce the deforestation that is decimating DRC forests.

Government institutions, technical and financial partners, businesses and civil society must combine their efforts to increase local awareness of the importance of reducing use of fuelwood and charcoal to prevent deforestation and associated GHG emissions. This must be done while also promoting the implementation of policies and strategies that facilitate access to alternative energies, such as LPG, for the entire population.