It is 8:00am and Charles Sande is busy at Ggaba landing site, attending to his clients from various parts of the city.
By Gerald Tenywa
It is 8:00am local time and Charles Sande is busy at Ggaba landing site near Kampala, attending to his clients from various parts of the city.
As he sells firewood, new stock is ferried into what is probably the largest market for firewood on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Sande confesses that vending firewood is his source of bread and butter, but he is worried that the trees that are being cut down for firewood or charcoal are not being replaced.
He believes that the forests on the islands of Lake Victoria are getting depleted, but there is little he can do to arrest this state of affairs.
“I do not know who should be blamed for destroying the forests,” he says, adding that land owners on the islands in Lake Victoria are opening up land for farming, thus paving way for charcoal burners and firewood dealers to grab whatever they can of what was hidden from plunder for many decades.
A visit to most of the landing sites reveals a big stream of biomass energy (charcoal and firewood) from the islands, to feed the increasing demand in Kampala.
Cutting down trees in Kalangala and Buvuma, the largest islands in the lake, is a big concern. If left unchecked the islands and the lakeshore would be left bare, exposing the lake to siltation.
“Charcoal in Kampala is becoming expensive and many people are turning to cheaper sources of energy such as firewood,” says Sande.
He adds: “Who should be blamed for destroying the environment? Is it the land owners, charcoal burners, firewood dealers, users such as bakeries, eateries, schools or health institutions?”
This is one of the issues giving a team of environmental consultants, led by John Ayongyera, sleepless nights.
Ayongyera concedes that biomass remains the cheapest type of energy, but warns that if the wastefulness in production and consumption remains unchecked, the resource will be used up in a few decades.
Ayongyera also points out that the profits in the trade in biomass fuels, such as charcoal and firewood, end up in the wrong hands. He notes the Government and local governments as the biggest losers through uncollected revenue, meaning that it is difficult for the Government to plough back into a sector that is not generating revenue.
Others are land owners who are getting attracted to different forms of land use that are described as profitable.
This, according to Ayongyera, calls for a strategy that would get money from transporters and market vendors who get a lion’s share of the proceeds from biomass and give it to the Government.
This will make charcoal and firewood production more sustainable.
Charcoal production and consumption wasteful
For every bag of charcoal that is produced, nine bags of charcoal are lost through inefficient technologies used to convert wood into charcoal. “Highly inefficient technologies of charcoal burning are used such that for every one tonne of charcoal, seven to nine tonnes of trees are cut,” says Ayongyera.
“For efficient technologies to be adopted, there is need to organise the charcoal production sector,” he adds.
At the same time, the improved stoves that would minimise wastage of charcoal in addition to reducing household expenditure are being used in the urban areas, but their use is not widespread.
“Possibly less than a half of Uganda’s households use the improved charcoal stoves,” says Ayongyera, adding that the greatest impact can only be achieved by adoption of improved biomass technologies, both at household (consumption) level and during the charcoal production process.
Ayongyera noted that: “Increased efficiency at production and consumption levels will lead to a reduction in the amount of wood needed for charcoal production by more than half.”
Government losing billions
Though charcoal trade is worth billions of shillings, according to Ayongyera, it is only the transporters, policemen at roadblocks and companies that are awarded tenders to collect district revenues that benefit most from them.
“The producers and the Government get a raw deal. Producers get peanuts and the Government loses a lot of money in uncollected revenue,” he says.
Ayongyera also points out that the price of charcoal is increasing, which makes charcoal briquettes a cheaper option.
However, the changes are taking place without a strategy that would help charcoal producers and consumers to overcome the barriers. Such a strategy would guide different players, including the Government to promote sustainable use of energy.
Charcoal-producing areas going out of business
Nakasongola is one of the areas where charcoal burning has had a devastating impact.
“It is too late for us to do anything about the situation because we have lost almost all biomass,” says James Kunobere, the district environment officer of Nakasongola.
“The local government is more interested in harvesting than investment in sustainable charcoal production. What is sad is that the trees have been depleted and there is no money to buy seedlings to replenish the environment,” he added.
Apart from Nakitooma, where most of the ranches are found, the rest of Nakasongola is depleted.
Charcoal burners are now moving deep into neighbouring Nakaseke and other parts of the dry land belt also known as the cattle corridor, which cuts across central Uganda from Ntungamo in southwestern Uganda to Kotido in the northeast.
Others have camped in the islands of Lake Victoria, which are being hit hard because they are closer to Kampala.
While biomass energy has for decades been described as dirty energy, Ayongyera insists that it is not a backward source of energy.
However, he adds that it needs to be used in a sustainable way in order to meet the country’s energy needs. This is what will help traders like Sande to remain in the trade without depleting the environment.
Energy crisis depleting forests around L. Victoria