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Women’s place in Africa’s growing charcoal sector

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The growing charcoal business in sub-Saharan Africa has often been seen as a male-dominated occupation, with few studies exploring gender dynamics. In reality, women are present throughout the value chain –from production to transport, sale and retail— and their involvement plays a vital role in sustaining rural livelihoods, especially in times of duress.

Gendered barriers not only hinder equal participation and benefits in the sector, but they can also undermine the efficiency and environmental sustainability of the value chain as a whole. As the charcoal business expands to cater to the continent’s growing population, it is ever more important that policies identify and address these barriers in each of the countries.

Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) have recently come up with a framework for incorporating gender analysis in future research and policy-making in the charcoal sector.

Following an extensive review of existing studies, researchers also produced a snapshot of available information on gender and charcoal value chains, and identified knowledge gaps for future research.

Participation is not enough

The review process made clear that sex-disaggregated data on the charcoal value chain is patchy and often limited to field observations. Even when sex-disaggregated data on participation or benefits is available, few studies conduct gender analysis to make sense of the observed differences.

However, by examining selected papers, the review found that women participate throughout the value chain, although they concentrate in retail, and that female producers tend to get involved as a last resort. Hence, obstacles to women’s participation and benefits may have a disproportionate welfare impact, especially given the high numbers of female heads-of household among producers.

Yet, having more women participate in the charcoal sector does not necessarily indicate greater gender equality.

The engagement of women and men in the charcoal sector, and what they get out of it, are heavily influenced by gender differences and inequalities, which in turn often intersect with other aspects such as wealth and social class, marital status and age. Notable differences are found, particularly in access to and control over productive resources and income; social and political capital and gender roles and responsibilities.

For instance, studies suggest that women tend to produce less charcoal than their male counterparts, often due to a lack of access to tools, information and labor. Where producers’ groups channel licenses and capacity building, underrepresentation of small female producers can aggravate the disparity.

Similarly, female transporters usually ferry fewer bags per trip due to difficulties in accessing transport vehicles, while unequal access to finances can limit the ability of female retailers to store and bulk.

These observations illustrate how gender inequalities can constrain women’s abilities to earn more money through increasing production, selling higher volumes and accessing better markets.

Differences in financial and political power also put women at a disadvantage in both the informal and the formal charcoal sector. Inequalities limiting women’s access to information and tools, household finances, political connections and mobility, for example, can make it particularly difficult for female producers and retailers to comply with national charcoal regulations.

Although not always the case, poverty and inequalities have often been seen to push women into the charcoal sector, reinforcing the notion that greater female engagement is not a positive sign in itself.

The environmental impact of charcoal production offers a paradigmatic example.

Some studies note its effects are disproportionately borne by women because deforestation and forest degradation reduce their ability to generate income from firewood and other non-timber products.

As charcoal production erodes women’s alternative income sources, more of them may be forced to join the charcoal sector. In time, trees become scarce and production sites are moved further away from villages. This might further complicate things for women where it is not socially acceptable for them to work away from their homes and families.

In addition, gender inequalities may impact the sustainability of the value chain. A study in Cameroon, for example, found that women’s harvesting practices had a higher environmental impact compared to their male counterparts. This was attributed to women’s use of more rudimentary tools, which led them to cut smaller, younger tree stems close to their homes.

Addressing unanswered questions

Gender issues affect who participates in, and benefits from, each of the steps of charcoal value chain, and they also influence the efficiency and sustainability of a sector impacting the livelihoods of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

To advance the understanding of gender dynamics in the charcoal sector, there is a need for systematic and robust sex-disaggregated data on participation; more studies on gender dynamics along downstream nodes, which tend to have higher proportions of women; and a deliberate focus on the ways in which gender norms and relations influence and are influenced by factors such as institutional and governance arrangements or the social and environmental impact.

The study conducted by CIFOR and ICRAF proposes a conceptual framework to guide future research on these various issues, informing better policies and combating women’s marginalization. It encourages analysis from various perspectives, ranging from the decision-making power in the household to community-level institutions and norms as well as legal systems.

The conceptual framework explores how gender roles and relations, in combination with factors such as age, class and ethnicity, influence women and men’s motivations to participate in the charcoal sector, as well as the costs and benefits associated with their involvement.

It also intends to show how gender differences and inequalities in the value chain influence its structure, efficiency and sustainability, and the impact of broader gendered norms and relations in the nature and extend of women and men’s participation.

Importantly, the available evidence shows the need to place gender analysis at the core of charcoal value chain studies and interventions, rather than approaching it as an add-on component that is haphazardly conducted in the periphery of project activities.

The charcoal sector is expanding as an affordable energy source for the growing population of the continent, and it provides people in rural and peri-urban settings with much-needed income.

This study distills the current understanding on gender and charcoal value chains, and provides guidance to address the numerous, and important, questions that remain unanswered. Questions that shall inform better charcoal-sector policies and interventions for the benefit of people and the environment across the continent.

By Markus Ihalainen, FTA Gender Specialist.

This article was originally published on Forest News. FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Reversing ‘dangerous decline’ of nature requires global initiatives to engage both men and women

Reversing ‘dangerous decline’ of nature requires global initiatives to engage both men and women

A woman works in the fields in the village of Nalma, Nepal. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR
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FTA communications

A woman carries food for her family in Nalma village, Nepal. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR

Our planet is in the midst of an ecological emergency, according to several recent reports. Deteriorating biodiversity is putting food security, economies as well as human health and well-being at risk.

Reversing this ecological decline requires restoration initiatives to incorporate the needs, interests and knowledge of both men and women.

This month, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a global assessment finding that the health of ecosystems is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.

This is happening despite the efforts of several global restoration initiatives. Scientists say that such alliances would be more successful if they were more equitable.

“Not accounting for gender in restoration is equal to ignoring 50 percent of the population,” said Iliana Monterroso Ibarra, co-coordinator of gender and social inclusion research at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “On the other hand, restoration processes that include both women and men can learn and benefit from their different knowledge and practices, making the process more efficient.”

Monterroso and other experts from the CGIAR Research Program on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) shared research on the value of gender-responsive restoration work during a recent workshop organized by UN-Women and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The workshop set out to gather input for a new, gender-responsive Global Biodiversity Framework, which is to guide the countries adhering to the Convention on Biological Diversity once the current Aichi targets lapse in 2020.

According to Tanya McGregor, gender program officer at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, there is substantial interest in, and engagement on, addressing gender issues among country parties and stakeholders involved in implementing the convention.

“We still need to build capacity and clarify what types of objectives and actions may be most appropriate to advance gender-responsive approaches to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in the context of the new framework,” she said.

Read also: Gender equality in agricultural development starts with understanding complexity

Gender lessons from REDD+

FTA has long-standing experience with research on incorporating gender dimensions into forest landscape restoration. The program’s research has shown that reaching desired social and environmental outcomes from ecosystem restoration hinges on the contribution and cooperation of the women and men who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods.

A woman in the village of Nalma, Lamjung, Nepal. Photo by M. Edliadi/CIFOR

After more than 15 years of implementation, the REDD+ initiative in particular can provide important clues, according to scientists. Although REDD+ is primarily a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions from forests, it does offer lessons on what implications such a long-term, on-the-ground effort has for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“The first lesson to highlight is the need to account for different interests, needs, values and behavior of both men and women around land and resources. For example, we have learned that so-called gender-neutral initiatives – really meaning initiatives that ignore the issue – risk perpetuating social differences and creating inequities,” Monterroso said.

Also, excluding either men or women will influence their willingness to participate over time, risking not only opportunities to strengthen their livelihoods, but also the potential for sustainable restoration.

The second lesson is related to putting in place the right safeguards to increase the chances for successful implementation of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Such measures include understanding whether women and men have secure rights to the land being restored, making sure that restoration work does not rely disproportionately on women’s labor, and finally recognizing existing governance structures that determine how men and women participate in decision-making processes.

“Ensuring the participation of all kinds of groups allows for an implementation that provides more benefits on the ground, not accumulating only for some,” Monterroso said.

Read also: The Gender Equality in Research Scale: A tool for monitoring and encouraging progress on gender integration in research for and in development

Starting points for biodiversity conservation

Understanding and acknowledging the importance of gender-responsive restoration work is only the first step. Second comes the question of how to make these insights operational for the countries tasked with implementing the post-2020 framework.

A Lubuk Beringin villager harvests palm nut on her agroforestry farm in Indonesia. Photo by T. Saputro/CIFOR

“We have to be very careful – not only in the design, but also in the implementation – to understand where gender considerations are important,” said Monterroso.

She explained that REDD+ experiences show that sometimes, communities and customary practices are actually highly equitable, but it is during the implementation of restoration initiatives that implementing institutions – particularly governments – can introduce inequities. Therefore, building the capacity of government officials is important, as is ensuring that they have the right tools to incorporate gender-responsive methods.

Relatedly, operationalization of the post-2020 framework is underpinned by selecting the right indicators. They need to be designed to capture data that shows the different roles and contributions women and men have in the process toward meeting the targets, she explained.

“It is not enough to count how many men and women participate in projects – we need to better understand issues such as unequal access to and control over land and productive resources as well as decision making, not only to be able to assess progress across different dimensions of gender equality but also as part of the moral imperative to leave no one behind” she said.

Finally, governance structures that implement the framework must themselves have gender equitable and inclusive processes. Monterroso: “To dream big, as they say, we need to make sure that these institutions are 50 percent women and are allocating leadership positions to women.”

An inclusive process

The FTA team noted that the recent workshop represents the kind of inclusive, multi-stakeholder process necessary to ensure that appropriate gender lessons can be identified, discussed and included going forward. Governments, multilateral and international organizations, research institutions as well as indigenous and women organizations were active in the workshop dialogue, bringing forth the right evidence and underscoring their commitment.

“The importance of including gender considerations is about more than whether the targets will be met – it’s making sure that we’re making the changes that these broader conventions, like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals, are calling upon us to promote – to achieve more equitable development that involves everyone in the process.”

By Marianne Gadeberg, communications specialist.

This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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