At Kampala’s Nakawa market, Lovisa Nabisubi scoops charcoal from a bag and packs it into tins ready for customers. Her bare hands, feet, and clothes are stained black from hours of dealing in this popular household fuel which some equate to “black gold” not just in Uganda but in most of East Africa.
The sizes of Nabisubi’s measuring tins have been shrinking as charcoal gets scarcer and more expensive. While the price of charcoal is getting out of reach for some residents in Kampala, Nabisubi tells IPS that she may lose her only source of income if the situation persists.
“It is becoming difficult to find the suppliers of charcoal. We have been buying a bag of charcoal at ninety thousand shillings. The suppliers sell at one hundred and ten thousand shillings ($32). Sometimes I don’t get any stock, so I stay at home,” she said.
Charcoal is a popular source of cooking energy for urbanites in Uganda and most of East Africa. It also has immense social-economic importance, but it is getting scarce and expensive.
A household study by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) in 2021 found that charcoal provides the primary energy of up to 80 percent of Kampala’s population. While charcoal, wood, and other forms of biomass together provide more than 90 percent of the total primary energy consumed in Uganda.
Most of the charcoal supplies to Uganda’s capital Kampala, neighboring municipalities, and districts have been from formerly war-torn Northern Uganda, but there has emerged pressure against it over environmental concerns.
In February 2023, a former member of Parliament, Samuel Odonga Otto, and others mobilized vigilantes to enforce bans on charcoal burning and illegal trade in a region that has a tree cover relatively better compared to other parts of Uganda. The vigilantes would intercept trucks loaded with charcoal cutting off supplies to markets like Nakawa and others.
“Cutting (down) any trees should stop. It should stop if we are to protect our environment. You can see the rainfall patterns. We will not turn to politics; this is environmental,” said Odonga Otto.
As the vigilante group got more sympathizers, President Yoweri Museveni swiftly responded by issuing an order banning commercial charcoal trade in northern Uganda and districts bordering South Sudan, DRC, and Kenya to the northeast of Uganda.
While the ban was celebrated by some in the region, a number of questions have emerged. What alternatives to charcoal? How can governments address the conflict between the charcoal ban versus lives and livelihoods?
Only 1.7 million of about 8 million households in Uganda are connected to grid electricity while small-scale charcoal burners, like Cypriano Bongoyinge, wondered how else to survive as the ban took effect.
Bongoyinge told IPS that traders from cities and towns should have been cut off because they were fueling large-scale production.
He told IPS that the traders from Kampala pay between $400-800 to clear an acre of land covered with trees and then hire laborers to burn into charcoal for transportation to the cities or across the borders.
Like Bongoyinge, Ceaser Akol, a politician based in Uganda’s northeastern district of Karamoja, told IPS that communities in the region were burning charcoal at a small-scale level, but they were invaded by large-scale commercial charcoal burners. “While the president came up with a ban, the challenge, as usual, is on enforcement and, of course, corruption.”
Denis Ojwee, a journalist based in northern Uganda’s Gulu city, told IPS that “Our ancestors used to use firewood for cooking but not charcoal. One tree cut for firewood would last longer. So fewer trees were cut for firewood than it is for charcoal.”
Ojwee said the war in northern Uganda may have saved the trees from unsustainable harvesting and that the times of peace have come with a negative impact on the region’s tree cover.
“As much as people died during the war, the environment got saved. But now, trees are getting finished. They have finished other types of trees now they are cutting shea nut trees (Vitellaria paradoxa)—rare species of tree which take very long to grow,” said Ojwee.
Charcoal from Uganda’s Acholi and Karamoja regions is not only sold to cities in Uganda. It gets through porous borders and is smuggled to Kenya and beyond.
The Wasteful Archaic Method of Making Charcoal
Charcoal in most of East Africa is produced under anaerobic conditions. That method cannot efficiently regulate the oxygen supply, leading to a lot of waste.
Xavier Mugumya, a forestry expert, told IPS that the high demand for charcoal had escalated the levels of destruction of trees because people look at it as a source of income.
“If you take a thousand kilograms or a ton of wood and you want to convert it into charcoal using the methods which we normally see, you will only get 100 kilograms of charcoal. That means you are only able to utilize 10 percent of the original wood. Meaning that 90 percent of the trees go to waste and become carbon dioxide and ashes,” explained Mugumya.
Corruption and the Role of Organized Crime in the Charcoal Value Chain
The Global Initiative Against Transitional Crime 2021 released the findings of the study investigating the charcoal market in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan. It produced a report titled “Black Gold: The Charcoal Grey Market in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan.”
Michael McLaggan, one of the co-authors of the report, said they found what he described as “a classic gray market, where laws or regulations are flouted at some point in the value chain.”
“There are more organized criminal elements in the charcoal market. And while it is not pronounced in other trades such as drug trade or markets for animal parts, it is present,” said McLaggan
The report found that loose groupings headed by charcoal dealers or people with influence in charcoal value chains commission clandestine production of Charcoal to stay in the market.
Nyathon Hoth Mai, a South Sudanese Climate and natural resources expert, told IPS that small-scale charcoal is produced predominantly by the armed forces in South Sudan, while foreign traders were involved in large-scale production.
“We have seen a lot of traders that come from Sudan, Uganda, DRC, Ethiopia, and Eretria. And they exert a lot of pressure on forests. And then as well how this has the potential of corruption practices,” she said.
Can Charcoal Prohibitionist Policies Work?
Kenya has since 2018 used sporadic bans on charcoal production. In Uganda, a number of bylaws against trade in charcoal have emerged, but there has not been a national moratorium. There exists a national moratorium in South Sudan on the export of Charcoal, but this has hardly been enforced.
The main shortcoming with prohibition, according to McLaggan, is that where there exists a commodity for which there is a sizable demand, that demand doesn’t disappear upon the commodity being outlawed.
“We noticed that when charcoal gets banned in a certain county, production shifts to another county. Or from one country to another country. So the problem is merely displaced,” he said
Sustainability Interventions in the Charcoal Sector
At the end of March, the FAO released a study report, “Are policies in Africa conducive to sustainability interventions in the charcoal sector?” It assessed forestry, environmental and energy policies related to charcoal in 31 African countries.
The report found that more than half of the 31 countries assessed do not have policy frameworks that would encourage sustainable interventions in the charcoal sector.
In other countries, existing policies and regulations tended to be inconsistent and risk creating a confusing and unconducive environment to increase the sustainability of the sector.
The study found that five countries—Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda—provide favorable policy frameworks for interventions that would improve sustainability.
Another study, “Cross-border charcoal trade in selected East Central and Southern Africa Countries: A call for regional dialogue,” said although several governments in Africa have banned the cross-border trade of charcoal, making it effectively illegal, markets in border areas and beyond remain vibrant.
“Therefore, the issue of sustainable charcoal production and trade remain critical and must be addressed as part of broader efforts to manage forest-agricultural landscapes across national borders,” it suggested.
While policymakers and environmentalists lobby for change, those trying to make a living from it have uncertain futures.