The “Scorched Earth” Charcoal Kiln Re-habilitation Project

Promoting holistic drylands natural resource management

The ‘scorched earth’ term is coined from a military tactic used by armies throughout history. It simply states that an army will level and burn (scorching the earth) every thing so as to deprive anyone else the use of that land once they have left. The key externalities associated from traditional charcoal production methods in dry land areas in Kenya are very analogous.

Once the ‘army’ of charcoal makers has moved on they leave behind patches of earth where the kiln was located that have been subjected to high temperatures for long periods of time. This causes a number of serious land degradation issues; at least one foot below the surface of the land is essentially sterilized, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, seeds, humus, rhizomes, all die or are destroyed from the partial combustion of large amounts of wood in a closed kiln. In areas where the silica content is high this treatment produces what are essentially uncompacted red-fired clay blocks. This type of treatment takes over 15-20 years for the soil to even begin to start recovering. Where the unused branches and thorns are piled up, they cover the grass for grazing for up to 4 years until they sufficiently rot down enough for livestock to access underlying pasture.

This leaves the area where the kiln was situated directly exposed to the elements and particularly prone to erosion. Typical sites that data has been collected from,
average 482m, which is roughly 1/100th of an acre, which may not seem like much, but in areas under heavy charcoal production, there may be 10 or more kilns per acre which means that the land owner loses 1/10th of an acre every cycle. In areas where intensive charcoal production is taking place, this amounts to hundreds of acres so finely spaced out that they escape immediate notice of the landowner. In the current area of operations (Narok South, Maji Moto area), the main land use model is based on semi-nomadic pastoralism. This means that the number of animals per acre dictates the land’s carrying capacity of livestock. In the focus area it is around 3 acres of land per head of sheep and 6 acres of land per head of cattle. As the loss of pasture increases, the competition for resources (grazing land) amplifies.


To exemplify appropriate methods of rehabilitating ‘scorched earth’ areas into productive, biodynamic multi use zones.


Micro-woodlot establishment will be the key tool in rectifying current and preventing future destruction. Woodlots will be securely fenced with the waste braches from previous charcoal production; the areas will undergo double digging to mix in adequate amounts of manure and humus, then it will be high density directly seeded with endemic and carefully selected tree species and will be irrigated by rainfall. As the trees grow, the tight spacing will give them a growth tendency of being tall and straight as they compete with each other for light. This is done so that when the time comes to harvest them, they are ideal dimensions for cutting, transporting, processing and using. That is 2-3in thick and 3-4ft long. When harvested correctly the tress will coppice, therefore ensuring a future woodfuel source.


The initial demonstration micro-woodlots will be externally financed. The charcoal makers themselves will finance all others under stipulation from the landowner as part of the charcoal making process and cost. Labour is the only key input. That is because all other inputs are locally available. Seeds can be collected from the wild; manure is free from the landowner’s livestock enclosure, the fencing material is a waste by product that is already on location. The labourcost for one kiln of typical dimensions to the area is around 3000ksh.


Soil and useable land loss is one of the greatest threats to riparian systems in dryland areas. The use of low efficiency charcoal kilns has a huge unintended impact on the ecology of areas under production. Coupled with minimal to nil reforestation programs this problem will continue to degrade the land and therefore adversely affect area residents and also all people living downriver.

Kenya Seeds of Change Project

An initiative contributing towards national afforestation through direct seeding of woodlots

The degraded state of Kenya’s national and private forests (and therefore, the overall environmental health of the country) borders on the point of no return. Unless large scale forestry efforts are undertaken by both the public and private sector in the next few years, the damage that has been done to the countries forests will become irreversible. Due to the slow pace of natural regeneration of forests (as compared to their exploitation), a boost is sorely needed to meet current and future demands by Kenya’s ever growing population for sustainably grown wood by-products, especially the charcoal and firewood that is used daily by 80% of the country’s population.

The Kenya Seeds Of Change initiative aims to contribute towards national afforestaion by land owners through the countrywide sales of inexpensive tree seeds and the promotion of direct seeding woodlot establishment. Seeds are by far the best method of promoting wide scale tree planting in Kenya. These are some of the benefits from the direct planting of tree seeds compared to planting seedlings;
  • Seeds are Cheaper! (At roughly 0.25cents per tree compared to 20+ shillings per seedling)
  • The tree’s hardiness and survivability increases.
  • Thousands of seeds can be transported and stored much more easily then thousands of seedlings can until the planting time comes.
  • Seeds can be massively disseminated through existing retail outlets with minimal price increments from producer to consumer. Tree seedlings face problems of availability at the right time, dissemination logistics etc.
  • Partially domesticated indigenous tree species are best grown from seed. They are already adapted to Kenya’s climate, soils and pests and the trees are currently widely used and understood by the population.
  • Seeds simplify the enhancement of the genetic diversity of planted woodlots.
  • The above/below ground biomass ratio is more conducive to healthy growth when a tree is planted from seed.
  • Overall financial losses and risks from drought, animals etc. are significantly less under direct seeding.

Limited Access to Good Seed

  • From large commercial plantations to small scale rural and urban farmers, the access to purchase certified tree seeds according to their growing zones and uses is extremely limited to anyone who would like to plant trees.
  • Currently the only place to buy graded, certified tree seeds is at KEFRI (The Kenya Forestry Research Institute), located in Muguga, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
  • In contrast all the Nakumatt and Uchumi supermarket chains and all of the Agro-Vets in small or large towns and cities stock a variety of seeds ie. sukuma wiki (Kale) and maize etc.
  • Which of course raises the question; why don’t they all stock small packages of tree seeds that are suited to their market base?

Core Company Focus

The initial focus will be on energy producing trees (solid bio-fuels in the form of Charcoal and Firewood). The trees from the Acacia family are currently the most widely used in Kenya for this purpose (and are in turn some the most over exploited). They comprise primarily these four species;
  • Acacia xanthoplea
  • Acacia polyacantha
  • Acacia nilotica
  • Acacia tortilis

These trees can not only provide a core energy crop but will also provide the wide positive ecological trickledown effect that tree planting is associated with; i.e. increased soil organic matter, erosion control, bio-diversity, water retention and catchment, soil conservation, bee forage, windbreaks, wildlife/bird habitat, nitrogen fixation, nutrient cycling, environmental resilience (niche diversification, food web complexity, carbon sequestration, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, etc.) and provide for social needs (boundary delineation, shade, etc.).

Encouraging the extensive planting of such a useful species of tree is essential in order to lay the foundations for sustainable charcoal/firewood farming, on a national scale. Widespread affordable acacia seeds will be the beginnings of recovery for Kenya’s forests and the transfiguration of the woodfuel supply/demand chain into long term economic and environmental viability.

Successful domestication and widescale cultivation of these acacia species will eventually constitute the final line of defense for the remaining indigenous forest ecosystems in Kenya.

This project will benefit all sectors;
It will enable large numbers of Kenyans countrywide to start re-planting, at a negligible cost, trees that will recover damaged land and provide future income
  • It will stimulate KEFRI to increase seed production which will correlate with increased rural employment and further research into domesticating high yielding multi-use Acacia trees.
  • It provides an excellent public relations opening for corporate social investment from major national retail chains; being an integral part of the greening Kenya whilst at the same time doing business as usual.
  • It would provide access to seed for developmental organizations, both public and private.

The typical acacia tree growing in arid areas in Kenya, (Narok and Kajiado specifically) can, after about 8 years of growing in the wild, produce 1 pickup load of firewood (2500/=) and after about 12 years produce 3-4 bags of charcoal (at 500/= each). Each packet of seed contains an average of 160 seeds and will initially be priced from 100/= each. The investment gained is monetarily huge but pales in comparison to the ecological gains made from tree planting. This is a cheap easy way to recover and enhance what is a vital part of the ecosystem. If all the trees that are being cut down for fuel right now started from seed but were not planted by the hand of man, then just imagine how many trees will grow when carefully nurtured and protected from the goats and the wildlife, the fires and the droughts which compromise the fast and healthy growth of wild trees.

Read more here


Teddy M. Kinyanjui
Sustainability Consultant
Kitengela Arboretum
Po. Box
23058 Lower Kabete