Importance of charcoal as an income source makes bans difficult to implement
Stacked Shea tree ready for burning. Photo by Dicta Asiimwe

Importance of charcoal as an income source makes bans difficult to implement

Charcoal production and onward consumption as cooking fuel are widespread in Africa with the situation very common in East and West Africa.

We look at what other countries are doing to reduce the use of charcoal in their backyards and how Ugandan traders seem to benefit from this, making banning exporting of the item even harder.

Mustafa Gerima and the community sensitisation

Mustafa Gerima, a biology teacher-turned-activist shot to the limelight in September 2019, when he walked 449 kilometres from Kampala to Arua in an attempt to sensitise his community against the cutting of shea nut trees. Now, he wants Uganda to ban the production of charcoal in the north.

As shown, in part one of this story, Kenya was the first East African country to ban the production of charcoal. The government in Kenya says it has since gotten its population to use other sources of energy such as gas for cooking, with data from their 2019 population and housing census showing only 17.7 percent of people living in cities use charcoal.

In addition to getting Kenyans to find more sustainable cooking energy sources, the 2018 ban also exported some of the demand for charcoal to neighbouring countries such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Uganda, a country with one of the fastest growing populations in the world is already grappling with high deforestation rates. People clear forested land for agriculture and energy for cooking, which leads to deforestation.

Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite data to monitor forests across the world shows that over the last two decades, Uganda lost 23 per cent of its tree cover and northern Uganda is one those that has been most affected in recent years.

Stuart Maniraguha, the Director of Plantations Development at the National Forest Authority (NFA) says production of charcoal is one of the drivers of deforestation in northern Uganda.

He says charcoal caused the most deforestation in central Uganda and the areas around Kampala in the 1990s and early 2000s. Players in the charcoal value chain say production has since shifted to northern Uganda.

Charles Kwesiga, a charcoal producer, says mature trees produce better quality charcoal and this is what drove him and others like him to move in droves to the north.

Northern Uganda and shea tree

Northern Uganda covering West Nile, Acholi, Teso, Lango and parts of Karamoja sub-regions is also the only place in Uganda where shea nut trees grow.

The shea tree is important for communities in the north as people extract skincare products and food. According to market researchers Future Market Insights, Uganda’s shea exports are valued at more than $1 million (Shs3.7 billion) per year.

Gerima says that since the regeneration of the shea tree is unpredictable and takes as long as 40 years to grow, the mass destruction of these trees is bad for the north, as the reduced tree cover would affect rainfall and therefore, food security.

He says that this is why he decided to walk to Nairobi less than half a year after the Kampala to Arua journey. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic brought Uganda to a standstill, Gerima walked from Kampala to the offices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi.

After the long 625 kilometres to Nairobi, Gerima says he believed he had found part of the solution that would stop the decimation of shea nut trees in the north.

By the time of his walk, consensus existed among charcoal producers and experts such as those at UNEP and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) that Kenya’s stronger shilling made charcoal production in northern Uganda lucrative, which in turn led to the decimation of shea trees.

That is why ICRAF organised a drive at the end of his journey in March 2020, for Gerima, to help Kenya’s forestry department identify charcοal made out of shea nut trees.

“To the plain eye, charcοal made out of shea trees is lustrous and glittery, and when in use it crackles,” he says.

He adds, “Charcoal from shea trees does not form lusenyente, the dust-like particles that fall off during packing and transportation.”

Gerima says he had hoped that Kenya’s forestry department would use the knowledge in its enforcement, to reduce the popularity of charcoal made out of shea nut trees.

“I had thought showing Kenya’s forestry department what shea tree charcoal looks like would reduce deforestation in northern Uganda but it has not happened,” he says.

This is why he now wants a central government ban on charcoal production in the north.

The position of the Ugandan government on charcoal

The Uganda government, however, does not agree with instituting a ban on charcoal production.

Naomi Karekaho, the Spokesperson for National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) agrees it is important to protect the north’s endangered tree species such as the shea nut tree and Afzelia Africana but adds that banning charcoal production is not a practical solution, as the majority of the population in Uganda cannot afford alternatives.

She argues instead in favour of teaching the community to grow fast-maturing tree species such as eucalyptus and pine that would provide cooking energy for the population while protecting indigenous trees such as shea nut and Afzelia Africana, which need long periods to mature.

Gerima, however, insists the community in northern Uganda would survive even with a ban on the production of charcoal, as the average household traditionally uses dead wood that has fallen off healthy trees.

Northern Uganda hosts a large number of refugees whose main staple is beans that require a lot of wood fuel and there have been reports of firewood-related conflict. West Nile where Gerima does most of its work is also a tobacco-producing region and the crop requires wood fuel to dry.

But Gerima argues the problem, is the money that producers of charcoal, local governments and charcoal traders generate from the business, but in his view, this can be substituted with money saved from arresting the food shortages caused by deforestation in the north.

Benefits of a possible charcoal ban in Uganda

He explains that it would be in the interest of the central government to implement this ban, as Uganda would benefit through improved food security in the north.

“You journalists have focused on the food insecurity in Karamoja, but people don’t have food in West Nile either,” he says, highlighting a nationwide problem that is harder to deal with in the north, where the majority of the poorest Ugandans live.

Uganda has suffered from food shortages since June 2022, as reflected by the high food prices across the country.

Maize flour is a common staple whenever Uganda is facing food shortages. Information from Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) shows the price of maize flour increased by 95.7 per cent in December 2022.

It had increased by 94 per cent in November. Other staples such as matooke, rice, dry beans, and vegetables, which are the preferred food choices, also followed a similar trend, increasing significantly in October, November, and December.

In a place like West Nile, Gerima says the food shortages would reduce with a ban on the production of charcoal, as improvements in tree cover would lead to more rains and therefore better yields.

“For West Nile, banning charcoal would be easy,” he adds.

He explains that with the River Nile, cutting off the rest of Uganda from West Nile, it would be easy for government officials to make sure charcoal does not cross the Pakwach Bridge.

He adds that by banning the production of charcoal in West Nile, the government would also avoid cases of Kenyan businesspersons passing off charcoal produced in Uganda, as having come from either South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“There is a district called Koboko. It borders South Sudan and DRC, and charcoal traders come to Koboko for revenue authority seals and a disguise for charcoal produced in Uganda to look like it is in transit to Kenya,” he says.

Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) officials say they do not facilitate the export of charcoal out of the country, as this would be illegal.

However, Ismail, a charcoal trader from Busia Uganda who prefers to use one name, says URA officials increasingly give out seals to Kenyan businesses, to make charcοal produced in Uganda look like it is in transit from South Sudan or DRC.

Importance of charcoal as an income source makes bans difficult to implement
Bags of charcοal in front of storage sheds in Busia Uganda. Photo by Dicta Asiimwe

He adds that businesspersons from Kenya started going to northern Uganda to buy and produce charcοal in 2020.

Since Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) insists charcoal produced in Uganda can only be sold within its borders, the business community says it has found ways to circumvent the existing laws.

Between 2018 and 2020, the circumvention of MWE directives included maintaining a market in Busia’s no man’s land where Kenyan and Ugandan businesspersons met to buy and sell charcoal.

Jared Mukisa, another cross-border dealer whose name we have changed to protect his identity, says Ugandans would then provide their Kenyan counterparts with forest produce movement permits, which local governments from across Uganda issue on behalf of the MWE.

These permits are meant to allow dealers in products, such as charcoal, timber, and logs, to transport their goods across Uganda. The permits now have a dual purpose, as charcoal dealers use these documents to prove to Kenyan officials that the product originated from Uganda.

Mr Mukisa says these permits are expensive to acquire since Ugandan officials generally project a façade of being against the production of charcoal, yet many are eager to make money off this demonised business.

Charcoal dealers are made to pay between Shs1 million and Shs3 million for a permit from the districts where charcoal has been produced.

The number of bags a dealer intends to ferry out of the district determines the amount one pays.

“If you have 400 bags, you are required to pay Shs2 million,” says Mukisa.

In addition to the fees paid to the district for the movement of charcoal permits, Mukisa says that dealers have to also fork out between Shs100,000 and Shs150,000, as bribes for security officers staffing roadblocks.

Since the dealers often move charcoal from as far away as Amuru, Adjumani, and Pader Mukisa says the bribes cut a significant hole in the dealers’ revenue since one has to leave a bribe for officers in almost every district through which the charcοal transits.

To reach Busia, the truckloads of charcoal are driven anywhere between 423km to 531km via the Soroti-Mbale road, but the distance can be longer since sometimes the charcoal is taken via Kampala.

Since MWE closed the Busia charcoal market, Ismail says the business model of taking charcoal up to Busia and then finding buyers is losing viability because their Kenyan counterparts now prefer to take Ugandan charcοal and disguise it as if it were coming from South Sudan or DRC.

Mukisa argues that this is bad for Uganda because, in addition to losing tree cover that previously provided life-changing incomes through trading charcοal with Kenyans, many in Busia will once again become unemployed.

Importance of charcoal as an income source makes bans difficult to implement
A grown shea tree. Photo by Dicta Asiimwe

“Before 2018 Sofia used to have a lot of unemployed young men, who made a living as thieves,” he says.

He insists Ugandans be allowed to take advantage of Kenya’s demand for charcοal, as this is a source of employment and a lucrative business.

It is lucrative because, before 2018, a 90-kilogramme bag of charcoal used to cost KShs1,200 (approx. UShs37,629 in Uganda). Then the government banned the production of charcοal in Kenya and the prices shot up to the current KShs5000 (approx. UShs156,790).

“Business was so good that many young men that used to terrorise Sofia built houses, got married, looked after their families, and became useful members of society,” Mukisa says.

Ismail argues that banning the production or even the export of charcοal is wrong, as it leads to joblessness, in an economy where many people struggle with unemployment.

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Sarah Babirye, the Chief Executive Officer of Uganda National Alliance on Clean Cooking agrees with Ismail and adds that charcoal bans are impossible to implement when dealers do not have alternative sources of income.

An example of failure to implement charcoal bans exists in the northern part of Uganda, where environmentalists got local governments to pass bylaws that should have stopped charcoal production in their areas.

Gerima admits the bylaws failed and that is why he wants the central government involved.

Ms Babirye disagrees, arguing instead that the government should start preparing those members of the population involved in the charcoal trade to get alternative jobs.

She adds that the government should also invest in getting a larger percentage of Ugandans in urban centres to use electricity, instead of charcοal.

Ms Babirye insists the cooking tariff launched by electricity distributor Umeme alongside the ministry of energy and mineral development has eased things. Under the cooking tariff arrangement a unit of electricity costs Ush400 but this is only available for households whose monthly bill consistently goes beyond Ush70, 000.

Information from the Electricity Regulatory Authority shows that Uganda has an installed capacity of 1330 megawatts and peak consumption stands at 880 megawatts.

The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development also has a plan this year to finally commission the 600 megawatts Karuma hydroelectricity, meaning there will be extra electricity for the population to use.

But for now, Uganda has structured electricity consumption to favour big consumers, leaving most urban to depend on the cheaper charcοal alternative. This makes charcoal bans such as the one in Kenya and as proposed by Gerima for Uganda difficult to implement.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.