Prospect of Biomass Energy in East Africa (ProBE)

Biomass Energy
The project analyses the prospects of pro-poor biomass energy value chains in rural–urban contexts in East Africa. Photo: Roger Bär, CDE

The majority of households in East Africa still rely on wood fuels for cooking. Regional demand for biomass-based energy – especially charcoal – will increase further in the coming decades as a result of population growth, rapid urbanization, and the slow pace of change to other modern energy sources. The charcoal sector remains largely informal and many related practices are unsustainable, endangering natural (forest) ecosystems and human well-being. Efforts to replace charcoal for cooking with other biomass fuel sources have been largely unsuccessful. While supplying urban dwellers with a sustainable cooking fuel remains a challenge, it also presents an important economic opportunity for rural inhabitants. The charcoal sector employs hundreds of thousands of people in East Africa and is thus a crucial economic sector in the region.

biomass energy
The ProBE project will assess the sustainability of alternative biomass energy value chains. Photo: Roger Bär, CDE

The research is part of the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d programme), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The ProBE project is conducted by researchers from partner organizations in Kenya, Tanzania, and Switzerland.

Project duration: 12/2013 - 05/2017

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Research approach and activities

The project focuses on two rural–urban contexts: (1) Moshi, at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; and (2) Kitui, in the semiarid plains of eastern Kenya. The two urban catchment areas represent different agro-ecological, socio-economic, and political contexts, thus enabling comparative assessment. Key actor groups will be involved in research and knowledge-sharing activities throughout the project and will thus be regularly informed of relevant research findings.
The project is divided into three work packages (WP): WP1 and WP2 aim to investigate the prospects of pro-poor biomass energy value chains in both urban catchments; WP3 is focused on integrating the research findings and developing a GIS-based tool to support decision-making at the regional level.

WP1: Value chain perspective

WP1 investigates the social acceptance, economic viability, technical feasibility, and environmental impacts of alternative biomass energy value chains. A comprehensive inventory of existing biomass fuel technologies and a survey of people’s knowledge, attitudes, and practices will be complemented by an environmental and economic life cycle assessment (LCA) and life cycle costing (LCC) analysis of selected biomass energy solutions. 

WP2: Regional perspective

WP2 analyses the potentials of, and demand for, different ecosystem goods and services, including biomass energy generated in the case study areas. Activities include developing models of functional landscape mosaics, spatial models of human demand for ecosystem goods and services as well as requirements for environmental sustainability. WP2 emphasizes modelling the regional biophysical potential for biomass fuel production, according to different scenarios jointly developed by stakeholders and researchers. 

WP3: Integration

WP3 develops an analytical framework for integrating local biomass energy value chains into spatial models of sustainable biomass fuel production. This encompasses spatial extrapolation of the LCA of selected biomass value chains (WP1) and combining it with the spatial model of energy demand and the biophysical potential for sustainable biomass fuel production (WP2). The resulting GIS-based tool will provide evidence for regional energy policies that emphasize sustainable biomass energy value chains.

Expected outcomes

The project aims to support:

  • increased acceptance and use of innovative biomass energy solutions among poor rural and urban households
  • identification of biomass energy value chains that help to balance human needs and environmental potentials in rural–urban contexts
  • reformulation of current energy policies in favour of sustainable biomass energy solutions

Ideally, the project outcomes will contribute to long-term changes in the case study areas, including reduced production and consumption of unsustainable charcoal, reduced pressure on forests and ecosystem services, enhanced rural livelihoods, and improved access to clean and renewable energy solutions among low-income urban households.