Make charcoal economy sustainable – the trees are paying

As global crude oil prices continue to rise, majority of households in East Africa still depend on wood and charcoal as a primary energy source which has increased logging.

By Andrew Mafundo

As you may already know, there has been a lot of controversy concerning the charcoal business after Kenya suspended logging in forests for a period of three months citing acute water shortage caused by the destruction of forest cover.

In return, the resident district commissioner in Busia, Hussein Kato Matanda, declared the cross-border sale of Charcoal to Kenya illegal.

As global crude oil prices continue to rise, the majority of households in East Africa still depend on wood and charcoal as a primary energy source which has increased logging – illegal and legal that clears large amounts of forests.

The 2015 National Charcoal Survey for Uganda, concluded that vegetation cover significantly reduced from 45 percent in 1890 to about to 11.7 percent in 2013 due to the ever-increasing pressure and demand exerted by the rapid population growth and economic activities.

Kenya’s forest cover is rated at 5.3 percent. Between 1990 and 2000, Kenya lost an average of 12,600 hectares of forest per year.

The country recently experienced prolonged drought and as result, the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) is seeking Sh1.044 billion to fund its 2018 drought response and recovery program which is projected to reach some 1.3 million people in Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties.

In a study by The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it was concluded that Along with South America, Africa loses forests at a faster rate than almost any place on earth. Our charcoal production has doubled in the past two decades and now accounts for more than 60 percent of the world’s total.

In Uganda, it is estimated that more than half of its forest cover has been lost in the past 30 years to charcoal production and its demand is ever increasing. Booming charcoal business is contributing to deforestation.

It is expected to exacerbate the effects of climate change, which has already disrupted farming, fueled a migration to towns and pushed many rural residents into the one thriving business left: charcoal.

This has made Charcoal trade a multi-billion dollar industry yet it is poorly regulated and in its current form, is unsustainable. The unsustainable approach puts the charcoal subsector’s contribution to the economy at risk because provides employment to a large number of semi-skilled and unskilled labourers at different stages of production, transportation and distribution.

Uganda yields over 20,000 jobs from Charcoal while firewood and charcoal contribution to Uganda’s GDP is estimated at USD 48 million and USD26.8 million respectively(The 2015 National Charcoal Survey for Uganda).

In Tanzania, the charcoal market remains largely backstreet; the industry is valued at upwards more than $150 million a year.

In Kenya, it is over 10 times that figure. During an extensive tour with workmates in Luwero district, About 40 KMs after Zirobwe town, we encountered a group of men- my neighbours from Kikyusa who used to be maize farmers, selling bags of charcoal by the roadside. When we engaged them, these community members portrayed lack of awareness about the connection between rainfall and a healthy or degraded environment.

One of them, Mr. Kabanda said he had begun supplementing his income by selling charcoal.

Early this year, he became a full-time charcoal burner, after a disastrous harvest caused by drought and armyworm. “It rains less and less nowadays,” he said “That’s why I resorted to making charcoal. No one’s going to help me, we need money for school fees and food”. He and his friends are now involved in charcoal burning that is threatening to wipe out the skimpy forest cover in the vast dry district. They claim, “it is the only thing we can do to earn a living.”

Majority of them have no formal skills to pursue other job opportunities. They engage in charcoal production to provide income to meet one-off purchases of expensive items, respond to an income shock, or to meet recurrent seasonal needs.

The subsector is unfortunately characterized by low interest from investors, inadequate enforcement of regulations, poor organization of players, use of inefficient technologies, lack of standards and unsustainable production practices

We have regulatory frameworks to support sustainable use of natural resources including forestry resources. However, the level of compliance with these policies and regulations is still very low and suffers challenges of low funding leading to misuse and degradation of the environment.

Charcoal consumption Trade has a significant contribution to the national energy supply and economic development so to achieve sustainable use, the unutilized government land should be leased to investors to plant tree deliberately for charcoal production.

The government and its organs in- charge of the sub-sector, civil society and development partners should consider community involvement and sensitization for dedicated forest plantations for charcoal production.

The reality is that the rural population has limited access to electricity. Wood and its by-product charcoal are, unless radical steps are taken, likely to remain the primary energy source for decades. Over time, the effects of this are gradually catching up with the country, as evidenced by the prolonged drought.

Environmentalists predict that in the next 30 years, a lot of forests and landscapes are going to be degraded because of charcoal demand, and because of the lack of policies to counter that effect.

Any future charcoal alternative has to fill the gap. Government’s should think out of the box and break away from the convenient job-creator – particularly during a challenging economic climate by investing in alternatives if they are committed to the protection of the environment.

We should start long-term planning and aim at industrialization and learn from other countries particularly China and Brazil — people have switched from firewood and charcoal to fossil fuels (cooking gas and kerosene).

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