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[DURBAN] The use of bamboo charcoal and firewood is being promoted as an alternative source of energy in Africa, in the hope that it will help prevent growing deforestation on the continent.

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) presented its work on developing new bamboo charcoal technologies for Africa last week (2 December), at the sidelines of the UN Climate Change meeting (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa.

The initiative is the first to transfer bamboo charcoal technologies from China to Sub-Saharan Africa to produce 'green' biofuels using locally available bamboo, which is indigenous to many parts of the continent.

It is funded by the European Union and the Common Fund for Commodities, and aims to encourage the use of bamboo charcoal and firewood rather than the forest wood on which around 80 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's rural population depends for fuel.

Coosje Hoogendoorn, director-general of INBAR, told SciDev.Net that US$2 million has been invested in the initiative over four years (2009–2013), with initial projects in Ethiopia and Ghana launched in 2009.

The projects help train people in bamboo cultivation, best bamboo firewood practices and bamboo charcoal production, and also aim to set up three bamboo charcoal technology centres in the two countries.

She said that the challenge now is to scale-up and spread the technology to other parts of Africa.

"We have 1,700 farmers who are now managing their bamboo for energy production," she said. "We have 42 very small enterprises, like individual families making bamboo-based charcoal, organised in three associations in Ethiopia and Ghana, and have identified 350 families that are using bamboo-based biofuels for cooking."

Bamboo grows quickly, and cutting it does not therefore contribute to deforestation. It can also act as carbon dioxide sink thus contributing to climate change mitigation, according to an INBAR report released at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 16) in Cancun, Mexico last December.

China is a global leader in the production and use of bamboo charcoal. Chinese partners are helping Africans to adapt equipment such as brick kilns, grinders and briquette machines, as well as create hand tools for bamboo charcoal and briquette production.

"This is a good South-South collaboration," said Hoogendoorn, adding that the project has been "looking primarily at African [bamboo] species".

"Given the fact that there is a lot of bamboo in Africa and that it is indigenous, we can build on that base to make bamboo a viable alternative for the totally unsustainable firewood charcoal [that is used] at the moment."