Science - September 9, 2004

Firewood still preferred to electricity

The use of firewood for cooking and heating in urban areas is one of the causes of deforestation in Africa. It is a common belief that providing electricity to households will solve this problem. A study in Harare, Zimbabwe however, shows that more is needed.

Dr Muyeye Chambwera conducted his PhD research on the use of fuel wood in urban areas compared to other sources of energy such as electricity and kerosene. Unlike other African cities, the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, has a widespread electricity network: eighty percent of households have access to electricity. However, Chambwera’s research showed that almost half of the fuel wood used in the city is bought and consumed by households with electricity.

According to Chambwera, the availability of electricity is not the only factor. The low price of firewood compared to the prices of electricity and kerosene is also an important consideration. In addition, electricity has to be paid for in lump sums for a longer period, while firewood can be bought on a day-to-day basis, which makes it a more affordable option for poorer households. Some households have access to electricity, but have no appliances to make use of it, or find electricity unreliable. In addition, firewood is still preferred for special occasions like big parties or funerals, and for preparing special meals.

Chambwera concludes that electricity can never fully replace other sources of energy. A government policy that aims to reduce the use of firewood should take all energy sources into account, and consider making electricity and kerosene relatively cheaper than firewood. However, Chambwera does not believe that the Zimbabwe government attaches high priority to the problem. He predicts that deforestation as a result of firewood use is likely to increase in future: negative economic trends in the country will force people to use more fuel wood, as it is still relatively cheap and easily available. /JT