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How illegal charcoal fuels war and harms the environment

DRESSED in a faded T-shirt bearing the face of the American rapper 50 Cent, Samson Okenye leans on a shovel in Nyakweri forest in south-western Kenya. A 62-year-old from the Rift Valley, he has a new gig for his retirement. Having worked in a factory for most of his life, he is now chopping down trees and burning them for charcoal. He sells each bag he produces from his crude earthen kilns for 400 Kenyan shillings (about $4). Men carry it off on motorbikes to Nairobi, the capital, and Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city.

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

Charles Rice

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