From Bush to Charcoal: the Greenest Charcoal Comes from Namibia

FSC Africa / Nathalie Bouiville
worker bending over to inspect pile of charcoal
FSC Africa / Nathalie Bouiville
March 17, 2020
Category : Stories

Faced with extreme climate conditions, Namibian farmers have learnt to diversify their activities, especially by producing FSC-certified charcoal.

For three years now, the southern African country of Namibia has seen a succession of droughts.

Namibia is a vast but sparsely populated country where farming is the second most common occupation after mining. Livestock and cattle husbandry are the main sources of agricultural income, but with the drought, it has become difficult for farmers to find grazing areas and water for their livestock.  

However, some Namibian farmers have learned to diversify their activities and during the dry season, they produce charcoal.

Charcoal saves the day

Gideon Kondjeni (55) has owned the Swerwerstroom farm for more than 15 years. 

With 6,000 hectares of mostly livestock and cattle, his farm is like many others in the region. Neatly fenced and gated, it is located 30 km away from the quiet city of Grootfontein in Central Namibia. 

With the uncertainties of cattle farming due to the harsh environment, succeeding in the charcoal business has become increasingly important.

piles of raw charcoal on farm in Namibia
FSC Africa / Nathalie Bouiville

Gideon and his workers started producing charcoal in 2017.
The charcoal is made from the harvesting of bushes that invade the savannah. These bushes are often thorn bushes and invasive tree species. They are unwanted because of their rapid spread and negative effects on local ecosystems, negatively impacting biodiversity, threatening species and absorbing scarce groundwater. To produce charcoal, Gideon’s crew harvest and cut the bushes to burn them in kilns for hours and turn them into charcoal. 

Charcoal producing contributes to clearing the bush. This helps to restore the ecosystems of the area which has been affected by generations of human activities.

FSC certification ensures responsible charcoal production

Four months ago, Gideon decided to begin the FSC certification process. He joined the CARBO Namibia group scheme, which helps around 20 farmers to obtain FSC certification. That way, Gideon is sure that his FSC charcoal will be sold to CARBO directly assuring him and his workers a steady income. 

Gideon is getting ready for his first audit which will hopefully conclude with his FSC forest management certification.  

Frank Detering, the certification manager of CARBO Namibia, is helping Gideon and other local farmers to prepare for their FSC certification.

The FSC certification: a rigorous system

When Frank’s car enters Gideon’s farm for an inspection, the tension on Gideon’s face is visible. Even if the actual audit is not happening today, it is still a big day for Gideon. 

Frank first asks to check a harvesting site after verifying the farm’s map. The conservation area is also verified as its fauna and flora are monitored and studied for research purposes.

On the first harvesting site, Frank checks that none of the preserved tree species have been touched. Frank also makes sure that the diameters of the harvested trees respect the FSC norm: no less than 25 mm and no more than 180. The harvested site must be cleared of dead wood. A few meters away, two kilns and a few heaps of already burnt charcoal are laid out on the soil. Frank examines the charcoal that has already been produced to verify not only the sizes of the chunks but also their color, to guarantee that they have not been overburnt. Frank also throws a chunk of charcoal onto the heap. The charcoal emits a small ringing sound. This is proof of good quality charcoal.

After this in-field inspection, the group drives back to the cattle pen. There, Frank visits the charcoal workers’ living quarters. According to FSC’s rules, workers must be provided decent housing with access to water and sanitation. The huts are small but the facilities meet the requirements, providing good protection from the sun and the rain, potable water, sanitation and electricity. 

cattle of different size and colorations spread out in rocky field in Namibia
FSC Africa / Nathalie Bouiville

In the middle of the bush, with eight workers quietly sitting under the shade of a Marula tree, Frank  begins the training. Some of the workers are absent, on leave or have not returned from the north. Even though charcoal harvesting is considered a good job, Gideon struggles to find permanent workers as most of them are migrants and do not always return. Frank has to come regularly to train new staff.

Frank shows the four different tree species that can be harvested, with small logs of each of these species set on his plastic table. All other species are protected and cannot be touched. He then explains again how to measure the thorns that can be collected by hand or with a tool. He also details the security equipment that each worker must wear, before giving rules regarding animals that should not be hunted, harmed or killed. The list of protected species is distributed, and each worker signs an attendance list for the training session.

But the inspection is not over! Accounting books, folders with all the permits and documentation are still to be reviewed by Frank. He sits at the table in the farmhouse with Gideon and they spend a good two hours reviewing all the paperwork.

Gideon feels optimistic at the end of the day and hopes to get his FSC certification validated. Being certified ensures that he will sell all his charcoal. The demand is increasing for FSC-certified charcoal from Namibia in Europe, as it is known to be among the most ecologically produced charcoal in the world. No deforestation is involved. On the contrary, harvesting the encroaching bushes and trees helps restore the original ecological values of the soil. Clearing also helps wild animals roam freely in the veld and prevents fires. Jobs are created and the environment is preserved. Charcoal from the encroaching bushes is a win-win, and Gideon is happy to be part of this venture.