How charcoal business is turning Kwale into desert

Some 200,000 residents are reeling from drought but trade continues despite ban

In Summary

• The prolonged dry weather is a result of climate change caused by human activities

• But even the few small trees and shrubs still standing are still being cut for charcoal

A section of Makamini area affected by drought in Samburu, Kwale county
A section of Makamini area affected by drought in Samburu, Kwale county

Strong heat, dust and a few small, withering trees characterise most parts of Kinango and Samburu subcounties in Kwale county.

Drought has taken a toll on the area, wreaking havoc on humans, livestock and wildlife.

Kwale has more than 200,000 people affected by drought. Kinango and Samburu are the hardest hit.

The county government drought report indicates that most of the water sources have dried up. 

The prolonged dry weather is a result of climate change caused by unfriendly environmental human activities.

However, even as the situation worsens, locals are still hunting for small trees and shrubs for charcoal burning, leaving the land bare.

Kinango and Samburu are the leading producers of charcoal, followed by Lunga Lunga constituency in Kwale.

Maghanga Blessington, the Kenya Forest Service Ecosystem Conservator, said most charcoal is produced in forest ranches.

It is believed most charcoal in the Coast region comes from Kwale.

Piles of charcoal sacks are normally transported on road by motorbikes on daily basis from Kwale to Mombasa via Samburu-Kinango and Lunga-Lunga-Mombasa roads.

Kenyans For Green World founder Omar Weko estimates that more than 150 bags of charcoal are transported to Mombasa every day.

"The Kinango-Samburu-Mombasa road has about 15 trucks and per day, they carry about 10-15 sacks of charcoal," he said in an interview in Moyeni, Kinango.

The charcoal is also sold along the Kinango-Samburu highway amid the intensified drought, a sign the suffering of locals could be self-inflicted.

We know tree felling is forbidden but it is the only way to salvage ourselves from the biting drought
Bechimera Bemazera


Ali Ngombeko from Chigutu Mbele in Makamini said they burn charcoal to come out of poverty.

"We are hungry and we don't have a choice but to burn charcoal for survival," he said.

The 53-year-old said for the past 10 years, the area has been receiving erratic rains, making it hard for them to produce enough food.

Kinango and Samburu residents have for years depended on crop farming and livestock keeping for their livelihood.

Ngombeko said with the poor rains, they are forced to sell charcoal to get money to sustain their families.

"We have no harvests or water. Famine is here with us, what should we do?" he said.

The current drought is reported to have destroyed thousands of acres of crops in the region.

Ngombeko said since most of the big trees are gone, they go for the small ones or uproot the tree roots to make charcoal.

This has further aggravated the drought situation as indigenous trees reduce in numbers.

The children have also inherited the destructive business from their parents.

Kinango subcounty Assistant Forest Conservator Simba Nyawa said schoolchildren are now into the charcoal business in Kinango.

He said due to the heightened drought and high cost of living, the parents share with them the burden of responsibility.

He pointed out Moyeni village as the most severely hit by the phenomenon.

Bechimera Bemazera from Kizingo village said they are aware of the ban imposed by the government on charcoal burning, but hunger is forcing them to break the law.

"We know tree felling is forbidden but it is the only way to salvage ourselves from the biting drought," he said.

Bemazera said since farming activities have been affected, they sell charcoal to buy food and water.

He said they have to trek for long distances to fetch water at higher prices. One 20-litre jerrican of fresh water is sold at Sh50-100.

Bemazera said some of the people are moving to Mombasa to look for casual jobs since farming is no longer productive.  

He said the charcoal business is an easy way of making quick money since it requires burning tree logs.

Bemazera said the jobs in towns are also rare to find and those who have secured casual employment have low salaries, so the charcoal business helps to meet their needs.

Kwekwe Muphe speaks in an interview in Makamini, Samburu subcounty, Kwale county, on November 12
Kwekwe Muphe speaks in an interview in Makamini, Samburu subcounty, Kwale county, on November 12
I don't think we are the ones responsible, the rains are brought by God
Kwekwe Muphe


Kinango charcoal producers are among the beneficiaries of the World Wide Fund For Nature, Ministry of Energy, Kenya Forestry Research Institute and KFS environmental conservation programme.

Residents are trained on improved sources of cooking energy and alternative means of livelihood to reduce the pressure on natural resources.

Despite the numerous efforts by the government and NGOs to create awareness on environmental conservation, however, some locals are still defiant. 

Makamini resident Kwekwe Muphe said she doesn't believe that poor rains are a result of forest damage and charcoal burning. 

"I don't think we are the ones responsible, the rains are brought by God," she said.

Muphe said when the right time comes, God will release the rain.

Vigurungani resident Ndoro Nyawa said the rains are scarce because the gods are angry.

He said people have forgotten traditions and culture, hence are going against the way of the gods.

Nyawa said the destruction of Kaya forests and unacceptable social human behaviour are to be blamed for the increasing drought.

"Nowadays people do bad things, they have completely ignored their culture," he said.

Nyawa said in the old days, rains were in plenty because people were pure.

He said the new generation has no knowledge of appeasing gods, and they treat tradition and culture as witchcraft.


Ngombeko and Bemazera said they are aware of the government regulations on tree planting but defy the laws to meet their daily demands.

In Kwale the ban on mangrove harvesting and tree cutting is still effective but some residents would find ways to cause destruction. 

In a previous interview, Kwale KFS station forest manager Edwin Misachi said residents are ignorant about participating in active tree-growing and conservation.

He said residents have been hunting forest trees for firewood and timber.

"Lack of active participation in tree growing within the community has led to overdependency on public forests for livelihood," he said.

He also said the dry weather itself is forcing residents to adopt harmful survival skills, tree felling being one of them.

Weko said some residents are selfish and only think of making money for themselves, with less care about the harm and well-being of future generations.

He blamed them for the ongoing dry weather in Kinango and Samburu.

"These areas are slowly turning into deserts because of excessive tree cutting done by a few ignorant residents," he said.

Biasha Shenga, a Chigutu resident from Makamini, however said some of the residents destroy the environment unwillingly.

She said they don't have an alternative but to devise new ways of surviving.

Shenga said the rate at which drought is spreading in the area is life-threatening.

"Some could just have one unhealthy meal a day, not knowing where to get another. Burning charcoal is the least they can do to keep moving," she said.

Shenga said if residents are well-fed and empowered, most of them would not think of the charcoal business.

But Nyiro Chiro from Samburu said most residents have lived to know the charcoal business.

He said they have done it for years and it is in their blood, and it is hard to quit the business.

"I learnt charcoal burning from my father, and I have passed the knowledge to children, who will pass it to their sons," he said.

Chiro said drought has affected their charcoal trade since there are fewer trees to burn. He hopes the rains will come soon. 

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