As fuel prices rise, firewood rustlers vex rural Kenya

Rising fossil fuel prices combined with a ban on harvesting firewood in Kenya's forests is causing the problem, officials say.

Firewood in Kenya
Eric Mutwiri takes stock of his firewood at his home in Kambandi, Kenya, July 11, 2019. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

Lucy Muthoni has never liked dogs. But these days, a pair of mean-looking hounds tail her as she makes the rounds at her farm in central Kenya.

The reason for her shift in attitude is an unusual crime wave sweeping through villages in rural Kenya: firewood theft.

“I was puzzled at first. Stealing firewood is not something that happens here. But when three other women from my village told me they had lost their firewood too, I decided to act,” the 38-year old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Muthoni lost a shoulder-high pile of firewood in late 2018. She usually stacks it at her farm during the dry season, for use later at home when the rains set in.

She cannot understand what has caused this crime wave, she said.

But local assistant police chief Lawrence Micheni linked the crime to increasing demand for firewood in rural shopping centres, as fuel prices rise and buyers try to cut costs.

Micheni said restaurant owners and other traders have been hit with increasing electricity costs as fossil fuel prices rise and as Kenya’s government increases taxes on a variety of goods and services, including energy.

As well, a 2018 ban on wood harvesting in Kenya’s disappearing forests has made firewood scarcer, creating growing temptation to steal unguarded supplies.

“Chicken and crop theft are the most common crimes reported at my office. But this firewood theft is something new,” Micheni said, shaking his head in disgust at the crime.

Muthoni is fed up too, which is why she bought the hounds in January to patrol her farm at night, when most firewood theft occurs, she said.

She has not reported her loss to authorities, however, as she – like other farmers – struggles to see it as a serious crime.

“We actually laugh it off when we meet with other women in the village” who have also suffered thefts, she said.

Firewood in Kenya
A pile of firewood sits outside a food kiosk near a shopping centre in Kambandi, Kenya, July 11, 2019. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kagondu Njagi

Tree Losses

But David Mwanzia, an ecosystem conservation manager in central Kenya for the Kenya Forest Service is not amused, and lists firewood theft as an environmental crime.

Mwanzia said illegal firewood cutting in forests can be punished by government agencies, including his own.

But theft that takes place on farms is also a threat to Kenya’s trees because farmers are then forced to cut more timber on their own land to replace the stolen firewood.

“This puts a lot of pressure on the environment because the tree canopy, which attracts rainfall and acts as a wind break, is reduced,” said Mwanzia in an interview.

In Tharaka Nith county, where Muthoni lives, records at the environment court indicate that at least nine cases of firewood theft have been handled since January.

But most cases go unreported because farmers are not aware firewood theft should be reported as an environmental crime, said Ngai Mutuoboro of the Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka community conservation group in Tharaka Nithi county.

Mutuoboro, whose group fights for the rights of indigenous communities to manage Mt. Kenya’s forests, said growing restrictions on timber cutting by the government have denied rural Kenyans a basic and long-used fuel source.

“People used to get firewood from forests and in return they would take care of the trees. Now they only have the trees on their farms (for firewood) when the government banned them from the forests,” he said.

But “these are not enough to supply the energy needs of the growing population,” said the 73-year-old, in an interview.

Fuel Shift

According to Kenya’s Ministry of Energy, 90% of rural households use firewood for cooking and heating.

The country needs to hugely expand its electricity production to substitute for that firewood, according to Joseph Njoroge, the energy principal secretary.

It aims to generate much of that new power from renewable energy sources including geothermal, hydropower, wind and solar, he said in an interview.

Kenya is already an African leader in renewable energy, with more than 60% of its power coming from geothermal energy, hydropower and smaller amounts of wind and solar power, according to a 2018 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute.

But other potential sources of cheap cooking fuel also are available. Mercy Ogwan is a saleswoman for Sanivation Ltd., which makes cooking briquettes in part from human poo.

“We use human waste to make these briquettes so that consumers can use them in place of firewood and charcoal,” said Ogwan in an interview.

Such briquettes sell for about 30% less than firewood, she said.

Last year, her company produced 100 tonnes of the briquettes, which are available for sale in central Kenya, Nairobi and the Rift Valley, she said.


This article was written by Kagondu Njagi and edited by Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.

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