Biomass Fuel at the Nexus: Policy Lessons from Bottom-Up Perspectives in Urban Ghana

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Sociology & Social Policy


80 percent of sub-Saharan households are estimated to rely on solid biomass as fuel for cooking. Worldwide, biomass fuel use is disproportionately rural. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the International Energy Agency estimates that 60 percent of urban dwellers use wood or wood-based products (charcoal). Biomass fuel use is linked to premature death from pollution, environmental problems of deforestation and emissions linked to climate change. Hence, the Sustainable Development Goal 7 promises to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all" by 2030.

Policy initiatives have tended to take a siloed approach to this problem, targeting 'clean energy' from specific artefacts (improved cookstoves, biogas digesters) or cleaner fuels. In 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves set a target for take-up of cleaner stoves and fuels in a "100 million households by 2020". Yet, improved stove designs have been promoted since the late 1940s with limited success. Where biomass fuel has been considered within a wider nexus, a top-down approach has led to misleading assumptions. In the 1970s, fuelwood gathering was equated with deforestation; no consideration was given to whether rural dwellers managed the process in harmonious ways as social scientists discovered in some cases. Studies of local attitudes to policy-defined problems are now common, but results of structured questionnaires are open to question with poorer householders likely to feel constrained to answer in ways 'expected' of them. Qualitative researchers have highlighted unexpected findings from a more open-ended approach focusing on the tensions and harmonies constituting the daily hum of life in households.

Three factors point to the value of a bottom-up nexus approach to biomass fuel policies. First, designers associate the stove with cooking food and aim to optimise the use of wood or charcoal. Yet, in practice, lighting, heating, water purification, food preparation, and food waste management are all potentially relevant. Rather than focus on 'clean energy' or even food, understanding how households manage the nexus between food, fuel and waste is important. Second, this nexus must be placed in the context of other household realities. Our previous work shows that the ability to adopt cleaner fuels/stoves is shaped by competing priorities, aspirations and constraints that cut across livelihoods, income and social structures (notably, gender). Third, policies targeting fuels (as opposed to stoves or digesters) would also benefit from a bottom-up perspective on the nexus between how fuel production and management, and the environment. For example, some charcoal producers contest that wood-clearing necessarily leads to deforestation.

We will address these challenges by co-creating and disseminating a policy-relevant nexus-based understanding through a partnership between the University of Nottingham team leading the project and academics and stakeholders in West Africa. The research will focus on urban Ghana where there is a resurgence of policy interest in cleaner stoves and fuels. Our partners include the University of Ibadan, Ho Polytechnic, the Ghana Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GHACCO) and Gyapa, a social enterprise working across the sustainable energy supply chain. We will explore a.) how householders view clean energy in relation to other aspects of resource management, and what their choices reveal about their priorities and aspirations; b.) how charcoal producers and retailers manage priorities of forest conservation, fuel-users and others along the supply chain; and c.) how insights from this analysis might be used to refine national- and global-level policies targeting cleaner stoves and fuels.

Planned Impact

Target beneficiaries are, in the first instance, our stakeholder partners in West Africa, GHACCO and Gyapa. GHACCO, the Ghana Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, is a public-private partnership funded by the United Nations Foundation to create a platform for mobilizing a revolution in the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels in Ghana. Gyapa Enterprises is a social enterprise, working with small-scale entrepreneurs to market and distribute sustainable technologies to low-income households across Ghana and West Africa. By working with these stakeholders, we aim to contribute to the welfare of low-income urban households in Ghana who rely on traditional biomass for fuel; charcoal producers and retailers; and clean cookstove manufacturers and distributors. We will also aim to feed into the Ghanaian government's sustainable energy policy goals, and in the longer term, the development of global clean energy policy activities (notably, around the Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves).

The primary mechanisms for creating impact are built into the project lifetime from co-design of the proposal with our stakeholder partners through collaboration in conducting the fieldwork, and co-production of outputs for non-academic audiences.

Co-Design: The idea for the project arose from conversations with representatives from our two main stakeholder partners, GHACCO and Gyapa. We have liaised closely with them in developing the proposal for this project.

Fieldwork Collaboration: These stakeholders will also act as researchers working alongside our academic partners in Ghana (Ho Polytechnic) in connecting with urban householders using charcoal fuel; charcoal producers and retailers; and new-generation businesses working towards more appropriate ways of meeting the fuel needs of the poor. Stakeholders are more likely to recognise and value insights from 'bottom-up' ethnographic and in-depth interview research through this experience of learning-by-doing. This type of co-production of research is likely to be more effective in generating impact than the traditional presentation-style activities delivered to stakeholders.

Research Capacity: The research activity will also help build longer-term capacity within these stakeholder groups in qualitative research. This will help them go beyond the limitations of traditional questionnaire-based surveys that constrain the ways in which people respond and where there is a tendency, especially in situations of unequal power relationships, to respond in 'expected' ways.

Co-Produced Outputs: For engaging with policymakers in Ghana involved in different aspects of the sustainable energy nexus, we will produce a briefing. To disseminate insights for different actors in the clean energy and fuels supply chain, we will develop information leaflets.


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Description a. New knowledge: Demonstrating the importance of a bottom-up perspective on the nexus
In-depth qualitative research was conducted with a sample of low-income charcoal fuel users (18 households in Accra), and charcoal producers, sellers and transporters (in the Volta Region). This work shows that the nexus between fuel (charcoal, in this case) and sustainability is more complex than implied by a top-down framing which points to a simple tradeoff between fuel production and preservation of forest cover.
First, charcoal fuel-users recognised that they had a stake in the preservation of forest resources. Many had vague recollections of a media campaign launched by the government to curb unsustainable tree harvesting practices in the country. However, they were unconvinced that declining forest cover could be directly attributed to charcoal use for domestic cooking. They noted other trends including export of timber and the clearing of land for construction and farming purposes. They also highlighted the need to adopt and enforce better forest management practices to ensure the continued availability of tree stock for charcoal.
Second, our work unpacks a rarely-recognised nexus between charcoal fuel, local economies and social bonds. Charcoal is an invaluable resource for cooking, providing the flexibility that many low-income households in urban Ghana need to navigate the social and economic circumstances within which they operate. A low-cost, thriving and dependable local economy in charcoal allows largely female householders to be nimble in managing shifting needs and priorities. Trust and reciprocity built through repeated transactions between street-corner charcoal retailers (also mostly female) and household-users allow the latter to make use of informal 'credit' arrangements in times of financial stress.
Third, the traditional charcoal supply chain largely consists of small-scale producers, transporters and sellers operating a highly vibrant, resilient and flexible 'just-in-time' informal as well as formal economy. There is significant expertise that goes into maintaining supply despite multiple challenges of weather, resource availability and regulations. Some entrepreneurs are attempting to develop alternative charcoal value chains centred on 'waste' (e.g., briquettes of coconut residues) and on bamboo, but these are a small part of the overall charcoal economy. More work is needed on the future of these alternatives.

b. New research question: Is there a sustainable future for traditional biomass in the context of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 and the 'sustainable energy for all' (SEforALL) agenda?
Our project aimed to inform policy discussions around SDG7. These are framed in terms of a need to move people away from traditional biomass fuels (of which charcoal is one). In this context, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is being promoted as a 'clean' or modern fuel for cooking in many sub-Saharan African countries including Ghana. However, our work shows that this imagined transition from 'traditional' to 'modern' fuels is unlikely to be straightforward, nor is it uniformly desired.

Charcoal is widely used across all parts of the socio-economic spectrum in Ghana; this is unlikely to change, given strong cultural preferences for preparation of staple foods (fish) using charcoal. LPG is not universally welcomed, given concerns about safety and cost. Even amongst householders who can afford (some) LPG, fuel stacking is common, i.e., charcoal is still used at particular times and for specific foods.
Future research might therefore re-assess the role of traditional biomass fuel in SE4All in different cultural contexts, unpacking the tradeoffs between promoting a fossil fuel (LPG) as a clean fuel versus enhancing the overall sustainability (economic, socio-cultural, environmental) of a traditional one (charcoal and similar intermediate/processed solid fuels).

c. Research capacity: Strengthening capacity in science advice for energy policy in sub-Saharan Africa
Our third sector project partners, GHACCO and Gyapa, are already well-connected within the energy policy ecosystem in Ghana. With its focus on qualitative research, this project brought a new dimension to their expertise. Our meetings explored ways of bringing evidence gathered from ethnographic observations and semi-structured interviews to bear on quantitatively derived evidence and policy objectives. For example, in scoping work and subsequent fieldwork, we gathered evidence of stove-stacking (the use of traditional coal-pots alongside an improved stove) and fuel-stacking (the ubiquity of charcoal even in households with access to LPG). Neither of these practices are evident in highly structured questionnaire-based data which energy policymaking predominantly relies on. Our project therefore helped diversify the kinds of evidence that could be used to engage with energy policy.
Our academic partner, Dr Temilade Sesan (University of Ibadan) also gained from this project which contributed to her successful application to the International Network for Science Advice (INGSA) Research Associate Grant targeted at early-mid-career researchers in LMICs. This grant will focus on the evidence/policy interface around sustainable energy in Nigeria.
Exploitation Route a. Government policy-makers in Ghana: There is an opportunity for policy-makers in the Energy Commission and Forestry to creatively engage charcoal users as partners in implementing sustainable practices rather than viewing charcoal use as an anachronistic practice to be eliminated and modernised. Our work shows that their interests are broadly aligned with those of charcoal users who see government as a legitimate enabler of sustainable charcoal production in the country. Our household respondents emphatically lay the responsibility for sustainable charcoal production at the feet of the government. The enforcement of a regulatory code mandating the replanting of harvested trees was the measure most commonly advocated. Respondents noted that there is little incentive for private actors to safeguard the future of the commons if they perceive that doing so will conflict with their personal interests, hence their willingness to ascribe authority to the government in this area.

b. International energy-policy makers promoting SE4All: There is a need for this initiative to reconsider the value of some forms of traditional biomass for reasons outlined in our findings (embedded cultural preferences, link with thriving small-scale economies, and value for low-income urban householders), and develop ways of enhancing the overall sustainability of these biomass economies.

c. Research funders: More funding is needed to support the development of research capacity in qualitative methods, and capacity in translating such evidence grounded in genuine realities in ways that can be acknowledged and acted upon by governments.
Sectors Energy

Description Third sector: Research capacity within the third sector was enhanced as the Ghana Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and Fuels (GHACCO) undertook a significant part of the fieldwork, focusing on interviews with small-scale entrepreneurs attempting to produce and sell charcoal from alternative sources (coconut husk and associated waste; bamboo), and with government representatives. Through this they have gained an in-depth understanding of challenges facing the alternative charcoal value chain, and how government might support this sector. The lead partner from GHACCO has presented these findings at meetings involving stakeholders in the clean energy sector in Ghana; a summary is forthcoming in the next edition of the Ghana Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll) newsletter. For Gyapa Enterprises, the research conducted for this project by our academic partner (Dr Sesan, Ibadan) amongst low-income householders in Accra has provided independent confirmation of the robustness of their higher-efficiency Gyapa stove. In a context where charcoal is indispensable for cooking, the Gyapa stove helps householders reduce daily fuel costs and the periodic cost of replacing the traditional coal-pot. Government: Key findings from this project were presented at a meeting in Accra (September 2017) with representatives from the Ghana Energy Commission, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and a member of an alternative charcoal value chain. On the basis of this meeting, the project team has been invited to contribute to discussions around the Energy Commission's draft bioenergy policy for Ghana. A policy brief from this work is currently being finalised.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Energy
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description INGSA Research Associate Grant Programme (funding for Dr Temilade Sesan, University of Ibadan, research team member)
Amount € 15,000 (EUR)
Organisation International Network for Government Science Advice 
Sector Learned Society
Country New Zealand
Start 03/2018 
End 02/2019