The contribution of charcoal production to rural livelihoods in a semi-arid area in Kenya

  • Harun M. KirukiEmail author
  • Emma H. van der Zanden
  • Patrick Kariuki
  • Peter H. Verburg


Forest incomes in the form of both timber and non-timber forest products are an important source of livelihood for many communities in Africa. A major forest resource is charcoal, which contributes to the livelihoods of millions across the region. While incomes from charcoal are used to meet a wide spectrum of needs within rural livelihoods, the role of charcoal production on livelihoods of small-scale producers is not well understood. Therefore, we provide an example on the importance of charcoal on livelihoods in an agropastoralist community in a semi-arid region in Kenya. Based on a household questionnaire targeting 150 charcoal and 150 non-charcoal makers, as well as focus group discussions, we assessed the determinants for participation in charcoal production and developed a household typology based on charcoal income dependence. We also determined the role of charcoal in income equalization and poverty reduction. Our study shows that charcoal contributes about 20% of the household income in the study area. Gender, land size and the number of food-scarce months are the key determinants of participation in charcoal production. Based on the poverty analysis, we conclude that even though charcoal income does not lift the producers out of poverty, it can mitigate the impacts of poverty by reducing the poverty gap and poverty severity. Based on our findings, we recommend a multipronged approach to address sustainable rural livelihoods including a more explicit acknowledgement of charcoal production as a source of rural income. We also recommend broadening of the local livelihood base and a more active management of the woodland to ensure the sustainability of the income.


Charcoal Livelihoods Income inequality Forest incomes Policy 



This study was supported by the Ms Grietje Wille Legacy under the ASALI (A Sustainable Approach to Livelihood Improvements) project, a joint cooperation between VU University, the Netherlands, and SEKU University, Kenya. Additional support was obtained from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme ERC Grant Agreement no. 311819 (GLOLAND). Special thanks go to the Chiefs Ndakani and Mutha for introducing us to the community. We are grateful to officials of the Mutha Charcoal Producers Association for information on their members. We thank Festus Kakuma for organizing field logistics and our enumerators Anthony Muthangya, Bruce Ndongi, Nicholas Munguti and Lacryx Munuve for toiling patiently in the field. We thank David Kunst for assistance with some of the analyses.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environment and Natural ResourcesSouth Eastern Kenya UniversityKituiKenya
  2. 2.Environmental Geography Group, Department of Earth SciencesVrije UniversiteitAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of Geological SciencesSouth Eastern Kenya UniversityKituiKenya

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