A dusty road in Kyamukasa village, Nakitoma sub-county, Nakasongola district, 200km north of Kampala, takes you to the place where Haruna Balikaki makes charcoal for a living.
As he bends to pick up pieces of charcoal, his big round eyes tear because of the smoky kiln nearby. â€œA bag of charcoal has gone from sh12,000 to sh18,000,â€ says Balikaki although he is quick to add that he is worried about where to find more trees to keep up with his trade in future.
Richard Kisakye, a lecturer at Nyabyeya Forestry College, Masindi, says the rising cost of charcoal is both good and bad. â€œWhen charcoal becomes expensive, wastage will be avoided,â€ he says, adding that the process of making charcoal is in its self a waste of eneregy. â€œLess than 10% of the energy in wood is converted into charcoal. The rest is burnt to ash and gases,â€ he explains.
Kisakye says better technologies could recover up to 30% of the energy in wood, but charcoal producers had ignored them because trees were abundant.
He adds that even charcoal users do not know how to save energy. â€œIt is common for people to start peeling matooke after lighting a charcoal stove. This is wasteful.â€
In Kampala, charcoal is also becoming more expensive. A sack of charcoal costs between sh35,000 and sh60,000.
A study estimates that charcoal consumption in Kampala is 205,852 tonnes per annum with an increase of 6% annually. Countrywide, charcoal consumption is estimated at 723,014 tonnes annually.
â€œThe ever-rising demand for charcoal is attributed to increased urbanisation, coupled with the high population growth in the region,â€ says Kisakye. â€œThis in turn has put pressure on the available resources.â€
The high cost of electricity is also pushing people to use charcoal. â€œCharcoal can make your hands dirty and not many people want to touch it, but using electricity to cook is expensive,â€ says Kisakye.
Charcoal production in the country has reached unsustainable levels, especially in the districts that occupy the cattle corridor which runs from Ntungamo and Rakai in southwestern Uganda, through the central region to Kotido in the northeast.
Kisakye says most of these areas are stressed by bush burning and overgrazing, and yet the areas also have a lot of termites which distabilise the soil.
As a result, land degradation is rampant especially in areas where charcoal production is the main economic activity.
Meanwhile, James Kunobere, the Nakasongola district environment officer, says charcoal burners have shifted from the depleted sub-counties of Lwampanga, Lwabiyata, Kalungi, Nabiswera and Wabinyonyi to Kalongo, Kakoge and Nakitoma, where there are more trees. Others have moved to Kiboga district.
John Diisi, a geographic information systems consultant, says the vegetation in Nakasongola, Nakaseke and the northern parts of Luweero is already strained and some charcoal burners have moved to Hoima district.
As the energy scarcity bites, there is an option of charcoal briquettes that are made out of waste. However, briquettes have been more expensive than charcoal. Kisakye says with the ever increasing prices of charcoal, briquettes are likely to become more viable.
Meanwhile, Dickens Kamugisha of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, blamed the Government for not doing much in promoting renewable energy. â€œThe bulk of the money budgeted for energy goes to electricity, leaving nothing to promote renewable energy,â€ he said. â€œThe Government should take interest in renewable energy like solar power.â€
James Banabe, a commissioner in the energy ministry, says the ministry cannot be driven by the agenda of civil society organisations. â€œWe need hydro-electric power to attain a certain level of economic growth through industrialisation and drive poverty eradication programmes. This is the reason why we are taking hydro electricity as a priority,â€ he says.
Briquettes are a cheaper option
With sh33,000, it is possible to acquire enough charcoal briquettes to prepare food for a family of 10 for a month according to Hatuba Okello, the Manager of Kampala Jellitone Suppliers, in Nateete. Okello says a 40kg bag of briquettes that costs sh16,200 can last two weeks.
With the price of charcoal rising, briquettes are becoming a favourable alternative. â€œAt the moment, we have the capacity to manufacture 12 tones of briquettes daily, but the demand is hugher,â€ says Okello.
He said Mukwano Group of companies buys their briquettes in bulk (up to 10 tonnes per day) but still needs more.
â€œMukwano alone needs 40 tonnes daily. We supply schools and hospitals, but the demand is overwhelming,â€ says Okello. â€œAs we expand, we will also start supplying to individuals.â€
Okellosâ€™s company also makes the stoves that are specifically made for the briquettes.
A briquette stove for domestic use costs between sh30,000 and sh50,000, while an institutional one costs between sh1.5m and sh3.5m.
Charcoal briquettes are one of the alternative energy sources that are made from biomass residues like sawdust, millet and rice husks.
Apart from being cheaper than charcoal, briquettes produce less smoke and their stoves have a chimney to direct smoke away. This minimises indoor pollution that is common when people use charcoal or firewood.
Government should regulate charcoal production
Charcoal unites the urban population in Kampala with the rural communities of Nakasongola and other areas known for producing charcoal.
But experts say the charcoal business is like milking a cow without feeding it. They say charcoal producers toil but end up selling charcoal cheaply.
As a result the charcoal producers have no incentive to plant more trees to replace those cut for charcoal.
Cornelius Kazoora, a researcher at the Sustainable Development Centre, disclosed that the charcoal producers and the owners of land from which the tress are cut, do not earn much.
He points out that people who transport the charcoal to Kampala and the traders take the lionâ€™s share of the proceeds from the trade.
The findings are contained in a research report entitled, â€˜Value chain analysis and its implications on forest management,â€™ conducted by Kazoora.
He suggests that the formation of charcoal producer associations will help check the exploitation of the poor people and cultivate a spirit of stewardship for the environment.
He also says the charcoal trade is composed of people operating at various economies of scale. It would be difficult to bring together all of them under a regulatory framework.
Kazoora suggests the Government creates mechanisms to regulate charcoal producers who are approved by the sub-county or district and have associations to manage the trade in different urban centres.
In addition to the regulatory framework, the Government should invest in energy extension services. Charcoal, for instance, is not included among the enterprises for public funds. The negative attitude towards charcoal should change.
Eugene Muramira, an environmental economist at the National Environment Management Authority, says research organisations like the Forestry Research Institute under the National Agricultural research Organisation should introduce tree species that mature faster, to be used for charcoal.
Planting Trees for charcoal an option
Charcoal producers and land owners are going to be encouraged to plant trees for producing charcoal in order to replenish the dwindling stock.
This, according to energy experts, will be undertaken in the coming four years under a new pilot initiative implemented with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
â€œWe want to organise the charcoal burners to re-invest in tree planting or management of the trees,â€ said Stephen Muwaya, the coordinator of the UNDP-funded project.
In what he described as improving the charcoal â€˜value chainâ€™, Muwaya said they wanted to ensure that charcoal producing areas benefited more and the people who took part in the actual charcoal burning, improved their livelihoods.
â€œWe want charcoal burning to be a more organised process and to contribute to the development of the areas where charcoal is extracted,â€ said Muwaya.
In addition to organising charcoal burners into charcoal producing associations, the districts will be encouraged to come up with by-laws to promote sustainable charcoal production.
He also pointed out that better packaging of products would be promoted to make charcoal cleaner and standardized, because it is sold in sacks of varying sizes (40kgs-60kgs).
Better cooking devices to save charcoal will also be promoted as part of interventions to boost efficient use of energy from charcoal.
Energy crisis looming as charcoal prices soar