Charcoal Burning in the Mara

Charcoal Burning in the Mara

Charcoal burning around the Transmara area in Narok County in Africa has become a major threat to elephants and other keystone species because of the massive loss of habitat. The Nyakweri Forest in Narok County is the main affected area in the region by charcoal burning. This forest is a crucial rangeland for elephants. It not only provides key corridors for elephants to move between the Mara and Serengeti, but also is used as a breeding ground for them.

Locals who own land in the fertile forest want to use it for farming or grazing for livestock, both lucrative livelihoods. They see more value in the land if it’s being used than keeping it in its natural state to provide a safe place for wildlife. They don’t see tourism in the area as a profitable business. The high level of poverty in the area and the general idea that your land cannot profit from tourism supports charcoal burning.


Bagged Charcoal Over 80% of the region’s population still uses charcoal as a main source of energy and charcoal is a very lucrative business, generating over a billion dollars annually. The landowner lets the charcoal burner come into their forestland and they pay the landowner a nominal amount per 50 kg. sack of charcoal. This is a mutually beneficial relationship because it helps the landowner clear their land for farming and livestock in addition to the money made from the bags the burners can sell for a lot more money. The charcoal burner then transports the charcoal into small towns earning good money from the brokers who buy bags then re-sell them in larger cities for up to six times what they originally bought it for.

Photo by Life Through a Lens Photography (Marcus Westberg)

In 2015 Narok County government and officials banned the burning of land for charcoal production and the transport of charcoal. This has not reduced the production and habitat loss because government officials are often bribed to look the other way. The Mara Conservancy rangers arrested 82 people on July 10 and many makeshift houses and charcoal kilns were destroyed during the operation. The Elder’s Land Committee asked the Mara Conservancy to take action against corrupt officials and after the arrest they found that corrupt Forest Department officials were involved in turning a blind eye to the charcoal production as well as personally transporting it. The large arrest was a success in slowing down the destruction of the Nyekweri Forest.

Charcoal Burning

One organization making great strides is the Woodlands 2000 Trust. They are a Kenya-based organization offering afforestation consultant services to private companies, farmers and landowners who are interested in commercial and environmental sustainable woodlot farming. Their overall objective is to create a sustainable and profitable tree product’s industry that contributes towards poverty alleviation, environmental conservation and increased biodiversity in semi-arid regions.

Cookswell Kiln


Two projects to highlight are their tree growing initiative that promotes small, medium and large scale private sector afforestation ventures where participants access land-planning services, seeds, seedlings, planting materials, tree survival and woodlot management services thus learning about the Seed to Ash Cycle. Their second major project is the production of sustainable charcoal using efficient kilns and tree branches instead of cutting trees down. Woodlands 2000 Trust manufactures Cookswell Drum Kilns and teaches farmers how to use them.




Woodlands 2000 Trust School

MEP partner, Karen Blixen Camp, is also partnering with the Woodlands 2000 Trust to establish a Forestry School to offer education for the Maasai youth on how to plant and grow sustainable woodlots for the restoration of the Mara woodland areas. They want to teach the next generation that Charcoal is not a dirty word.



A word from Woodlands 2000 Trust Director Teddy Kinyanjui 

Various wood fuel scientists are now saying that up to 50% of all Kenyan charcoal is coming from private farms due to a lack of access to public forests and an increased price of bribes. This might sound like a good thing but, of course, the devil is in the details and farm forestry also includes people deforesting new land to farm wheat, maize, tea, sugarcane, eucalyptus trees, etc. The advent of higher quality drought and pest resistant crop seeds areas, that 10 years ago would never have been considered good for farming, are now being opened up and the cheapest way to clear virgin land in Kenya is still to call in the charcoal makers.

For more information on this Teddy keeps a Facebook depository of charcoal information in East Africa updated regularly.

As for the demand side of it; I find that as East Africans generally become more affluent one of the first things people do is to change where they live, rural to urban migration, and with that their energy use patterns and diets change which impact the charcoal trade immensely. Coupled with expensive cooking alternatives, for example gas and electricity, plus no firewood use allowed in rental houses and cultural food habits such as delicious char-grilled meat, roast maize etc. means that the charcoal demand is only set to increase over the next 30 years. 

After many years of deep thought and experiments on changing the charcoal value chain Woodlands 2000 Trust came to realize that the industry is so inherently corrupt and unlikely to be regulated given the implicit involvement of the government in not regulating the trade. I think the only viable option is to totally transfer the ownership of the entire charcoal making process into the hands of the end user and this is the Woodlands 2000 Trust and Cookswell Jikos’ main goal for the charcoal trade. We want to empirically demonstrate that you don’t need to cut down trees to make charcoal.

Charcoal Burning

Mara Elephant Project is continuing to use the long-term data collected from our collared elephants to help inform the government about protecting important elephant corridors and breeding grounds like the Nyakweri Forest from charcoal burning. It’s a very complex issue that we see the effects of daily when dealing with poaching and human-elephant conflict.



Woodlands 2000 Trust blog post that explains our approach to teaching people how to grow, make and use their own free charcoal at home or for a small business.

A comprehensive document about the charcoal trade is Kenya from Woodlands 2000 Trust.

County Bans Sale and Transportation of Charcoal, Narok Newspaper Edition

Rampant Charcoal Burning May Wipe Out Narok Forest, The Star