Knowledge support for sustainable renewable energy policies: The prospects of pro-poor biomass energy value chains in rural–urban contexts in East Africa


This project assesses the prospects of sustainable biomass energy value chains in rural–urban contexts in East Africa, with a view to contributing to the formulation and implementation of knowledge-based energy policies that improve urban populations’ access to energy for cooking and safeguard smallholders’ income opportunities.

​​​​​About the project


In East Africa, wood-based biomass is the prime source of cooking energy for about 90% of rural and low-income urban households. Due to the fast pace of urbanisation – the average annual growth rate of urban areas in East Africa is about 4 – and the slow pace of transition towards modern energy services, charcoal consumption will continue to increase in the next decades. This will reinforce existing dependencies between urban and surrounding rural areas. Charcoal production will be strengthened in its role as an important off-farm income opportunity for farmers and other actors along the value chain; but pressure on natural resources will grow, putting the resource base in danger. The East African Community (EAC) has already pointed out that diminishing biomass resources have reached critical levels in Kenya and are undergoing significant decline in Tanzania and Uganda. These trends represent a threat in terms of global climate change. The charcoal sectors in Kenya and Tanzania are almost entirely informal and unregulated and rely largely on unsustainable practices. But the sector in Kenya employs over 700,000 persons and contributes 32 billion Kenya Shillings to the economy every year while in Tanzania the charcoal industry engages several hundred thousand people and contributes annually US$ 650 million to the Tanzanian economy. 

National governments in East Africa have recognised the urgency of fostering poor households’ access to renewable energy and of designing sustainable (i.e. socially acceptable, economically viable, technically feasible, and environmentally sound) energy policies. Despite concerted action by East African states, the enforcement of such policies is yet to be achieved. Policies have often neglected the dominant role of traditional biomass, especially with respect to poor households in urban areas; and the importance of decision-making at subnational levels (districts, counties, etc.) for designing and implementing sustainable biomass energy strategies has not been sufficiently recognised. Consequently, there is a lack of adequate tools to identify potentials for sustainable biomass fuel production in urban catchment areas.


The overall goal of the project is to assess the prospects of sustainable biomass energy value chains in rural–urban contexts in East Africa, with a view to contributing to the formulation and implementation of knowledge-based energy policies that improve urban populations’ access to energy for cooking and safeguard smallholders’ income opportunities. Three specific objectives will be pursued to achieve this overall goal: 

  • To investigate the social acceptance, economic viability, technical feasibility, and environmental impacts of alternative value chains for biomass energy for cooking in two rural–urban contexts, based on participatory development of regional energy scenarios. 
  • To analyse the potentials of two urban catchment areas for the sustainable production of biomass fuels, considering demands for, as well as trade-offs between, different ecosystem goods and services in these areas. 
  • To develop an analytical framework for integrating local biomass energy value chains into spatially explicit models of sustainable biomass fuel production, with a view to achieving an accurate approximation of the potential for scaling out these value chains. 

To achieve these objectives, research will be conducted in two case study sites in Kenya and Tanzania. This will enable us to validate research findings and to test whether our approach is replicable in different agroecological zones and energy policy contexts. 


The research results are of direct relevance for a number of actors along biomass energy value chains. These boundary partners will be enabled to use research results to identify, promote, and scale out improved biomass energy technologies and promising value chains, and to identify sustainable regional potentials for biomass fuels. 

We expect that - in the short to medium term - the dissemination of research results through trainings and workshops as well as institutional channels will lead to 

  • reformulation of current renewable energy policies towards integrating various forms of biomass energy;
  • the devolution of part of the planning responsibilities to subnational authorities, with a view to identifying biomass energy value chains that help to balance human needs and environmental potentials in rural–urban contexts;
  • increased acceptance and use of innovative biomass energy solutions by poor households in the rural and urban areas. 

These outcomes will expectantly contribute to the following long-term changes in the case study regions and in other parts of Kenya and Tanzania: 

  • Reduced importanc​e of unsustainable charcoal and to more efficient use of urban catchment areas’ biophysical potentials for biomass energy production due to a higher diversity and efficiency of biomass energy value chains. The greater diversity of biomass fuels will also increase planning flexibility, enabling better control of trade-offs between different human needs for ecosystem goods and services. 
  • Positive effects on rural households in terms of enhanced income opportunities and livelihood security due to local and more efficient biomass energy production, and on poor urban households in terms of reducing their dependency on price fluctuations on the global fossil fuel market. 
  • Lessened pressing health issues due to the enhanced access of the rural and urban poor to improved, more efficient biomass fuel production and utilisation technologies. 

Geographic scope

  • Tanzania
  • Kenya

Research consortium


  • Albrecht Ehrensperger, Centre for Development and Environment University of Bern 
  • Rainer Zah, Quantis Switzerland/Germany, Dübendorf 
  • Boniface Kiteme, Centre for Training and Integrated Research for ASAL Development (CETRAD), Nanyuki, Kenya
  • Paul Gacheru Chege, Practical Action Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Estomih N. Sawe, Tanzania Traditional Energy Development and Environment Organization (TaTEDO), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


  • National and subnational authorities of the energy, agriculture, and natural resource management sectors in Kenya and Tanzania
  • Private sector: Producer of biomass energy technology and traders of biomass energy Local non-governmental organisations and community based organisations working in the field of renewable energy and natural resource management

Project information on P3

  • Link to project on SNSF research database P3




Further information on this content


Dr. Albrecht Ehrensperger University of Bern
Centre for Development and Environment
Hallerstrasse 10 CH-3010 Bern +41 31 631 54 58