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ENERGY-TANZANIA: Charcoal a Dirty Trade-Off

DAR ES SALAAM, Nov 19 2009 (IPS) - The sun is setting slowly over Dar es Salaam’s Tabata Changombe neighbourhood. Ameenah and Skukulu Juma lean against the corrugated iron walls of their makeshift charcoal shop.

Charcoal provides cheap fuel and hundreds of thousands of jobs, but at a high environmental cost. Credit:  Jessie Boylan/IPS

Charcoal provides cheap fuel and hundreds of thousands of jobs, but at a high environmental cost. Credit: Jessie Boylan/IPS

The earth is black. Charcoal layers every surface and crevice. Shawls over their heads, tired looks dampening their eyes, they’re waiting for customers.

“This is my only business,” says Ameenah Juma, looking sideways nervously. “My husband passed away, I have two children and I also look after my parents. It is very hard, because they all depend on my income.”

A woman comes by and fills a small sack, hands over 1,500 Tanzanian shillings (equivalent to about $1.20 dollars) and continues down the street, dodging goats and avoiding swerving mini-buses.

The World Bank estimates that one million tonnes of charcoal are consumed in Tanzania each year, roughly half of this in the capital, Dar es Salaam. Juma is part of a small business collective whose members put their money together to purchase charcoal – often illegally produced – by suppliers far outside Dar es Salaam.

Making charcoal

Most charcoal production happens deep in the forests far from the city and out of sight, smaller production happens on individual farms closer in, where authorities rarely visit.

About an hour's drive from Dar es Salaam, amongst tall coconut trees and pineapple plantations, where the earth is sandy and the dirt roads barely passable by car, is a thin and humble farmer by the name of Hheki.

He and his two young sons have created an earth kiln in which they are burning wood to make charcoal. Smoke wafts away in heavy clouds into the atmosphere and a strong, almost plastic smell penetrates the nostrils from underneath the palm fronds and dirt.

"This is not my only business," says Hheki, "it is very small-scale. I also grow vegetables to help my income.

"I cut the trees just from around here by myself. I use the cashew nut trees, this one was dead," he says, pointing to a large pit where a tree recently stood and is now smoking under the nearby mound.

A neighbour, and local farmer, Anna Hunki pitches in. "When I came here in 1988, this place was a forest," she says flailing her arms in the air and circling her gaze around the area.

"I fear one day it will turn into a desert."

Hheki concurs that there used to be a lot of trees in the area, but, says that when he cuts a tree he also plants a tree in its place. He goes on to describe the process of making an earth kiln by drawing diagrams in the dirt.

"First you cut the tree, then you cut it in to pieces. Then you arrange them into a pile, and into a tunnel - like this.

Then you cover it with branches and dirt, And then you burn it, for a tunnel this size, it takes 3-4 days, then I can sell it.

"People come and buy it from me (for half or less than half of the market price) because I don’t have any access to transport to sell it myself," he says.

The transporters are the most at risk in this market. They survive only if they can pass beneath watchful eyes of the police; if caught they risk being fined – or, more often, pay a bribe for release.

“During the time when the business was good, I used to go and collect the charcoal myself, but now because the business is difficult I stay here and buy from people who transport it here,” she said.

“We organise a truck that can carry about 80 sacks,” says Juma, “some of which we sell here, the rest we sell to other people for their businesses. After the costs of purchasing and transport, we end up with about 4,000 shillings ($3 profit) per large sack of charcoal, which is shared between the workers and their dependents.

Juma is vague about how much she earns each month. “Very little,” she says.

“It used to be a very good business, because very few people were doing it. Now the market is very competitive and many people are selling charcoal. We don’t earn much money, sometimes it’s not even enough to buy food for my family,” she said.

Demand for charcoal across sub-Saharan Africa is extremely high. Compared to wood, it burns with less smoke and is also more readily available to urban consumers.

According to the Household Energy Network (HEDON) charcoal is high-value and easy to transport and store. The fuel has twice the calorific value of wood, but it is burnt in highly wasteful stoves, which are much less efficient than gas or electric stoves.

Charcoal has long been the main fuel for cooking in households and restaurants throughout Tanzania. It is the only real option for the urban poor in Dar es Salaam. Gas is reserved for the well-off, electric stoves are few and far between, and firewood is not easily found within the city limits.

Environmentally, charcoal use has a severe impact, accounting for a large part of deforestation in developing countries. According to the Tanzanian Traditional Energy and Development Organisation, TaTEDO, some 300 hectares of forest are cleared each day in Tanzania, for timber, to clear space for agriculture or grazing livestock and for the production of charcoal.

One hundred million tonnes of charcoal are produced annually in Tanzania, resulting in nine million tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

There are other reasons for Tanzanians’ dependency on charcoal, according to Moses Mallanda, also a resident of the Tabata Changombe neighbourhood: people are fearful of electricity and gas.

“The Chinese people are importing wires for wiring the houses, which is of very poor quality,” Mallanda says, “and sometimes houses burn, so people think that gas is even more dangerous. People need to be educated first about gas and electricity then they can use it. Even myself, I can afford to use gas but I am scared of it, I don’t trust myself or my wife to use it.”

Mallanda’s wife Lucy disagrees. She says she would much prefer to use gas than charcoal, because it is much cleaner and user-friendly; it doesn’t smoke the house out or make the floors dirty.

Mallanda’s neighbour, Miriam Kipiki, also challenges the idea that people fear gas. “I’ve been using gas for two years now. I was using charcoal before,” she said. “It’s the initial cost of the stoves that is expensive, but they last for a very long time, whereas the stoves for charcoal break down every three months or so.”

Kipiki comes from a well-off family and is familiar with gas stoves, protests Mallanda. This makes it easier for her to afford a gas stove, and to use one.

Earlier Mallanda had mentioned that in Tanzania, domestic work is usually considered women’s work. But, he said, women are becoming much stronger these days: “they do what they want.”

“Perhaps you’ll have to buy a gas stove now that you know your wife wants it?” I say.

He laughs, “maybe,” then sits down on the large couch to watch the television.

“The choice of what to cook with is yours,” says Lucy Mallanda, “the government doesn’t offer any ideas or solutions, they just create ads on how bad charcoal is.”

Press reports on illegal timber exports and growing awareness of deforestation led government to impose a total ban on charcoal in 2006. A March 2009 study of charcoal use in Tanzania by the World Bank says the ban’s only impact was to deprive the government of revenue from licensing production while brisk trade carried on illegally. Prices for charcoal went up – and stayed up – as did corruption of officials.

The ban lasted only two weeks.

The goverment’s search for more effective action is complicated because responsibility falls between various ministries. Policies on better management of forests have been put in place; taxes on gas and the cylinders it’s sold in have been lifted, with limited effect.

The World Bank study’s recommendations begin with improving how government taxes on charcoal are collected. The authors call for fees to be collected as the fuel is transported, instead of attempting to license tens of thousands of small producers on-site; more of this revenue should be left at the district level, where it should be spent on reducing forest degradation through community-based management and training charcoal producers on more efficient techniques.

At the other end of the chain, more efficient stoves would reduce demand while saving poor households money; and affordable alternatives to charcoal, such as ethanol gels or briquettes pressed out waste materials like sawdust should be supported.

The failure of the ban illustrates how any policy combination will have to be thought through with care. The charcoal industry generates an estimated 650 million dollars a year, employing hundreds of thousands of people, as producers, transporters, artisans who manufacture charcoal stoves, and retailers like the Jumas.

The challenge is to find ways to preserve their livelihoods, use forest resources sustainably, and maintain supplies of affordable fuel for the poor.

*Terna Gyuse in Cape Town contributed to this story.

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