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ENERGY-UGANDA: High Tariff Drives Consumers to Charcoal

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Jan 10 2003 (IPS) - Musa Musisi, 48, sells charcoal in Wandegeya, a suburb of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Lucky for him, high electricity tariffs have driven consumers to charcoal.

In his small, dark and scrubby stall in Wandegeya, Musisi supplies sacks of charcoal, a regular source of energy for cooking.

Every morning, a truckload of charcoal is delivered from Nakasongola district, north of Kampala, to Wandegeya where Mususi sells a sack of it for 6,000 shillings (4 U.S. dollars).

Through the sale of charcoal, Musisi has managed to build a small family house and to educate his children. For him, selling charcoal is a source of living.

‘’The market is good and I have no problem with my business. Everyday, I sell almost all my stock,” says Musisi.

‘’Uganda consumes energy at the rate of slightly more than 5 million tonnes of oil equivalent per annum. Of this over 90 percent is biomass (wood, charcoal and agricultural residues) as the main source of energy for most households,” according to Van Nicholas Wamariala’s paper, ‘The Development and Management of Hydropower Resource in Uganda’, presented in Norway in June 2002.

Currently, only 6 percent of the population of Uganda has access to electricity, according to the Uganda Electricity Board (UEB). Uganda has abundant hydropower potential though only less than 10 percent has been exploited.

While rural people – who make up more that 90 percent of Uganda’s 23 million people – fell trees for firewood, urban dwellers use them for charcoal, a practice that only fuels deforestation.

Firewood is also used to make marwa (a local brew from millet and sorghum). Schools and universities also use it for cooking.

‘’There is indeed a market for firewood in Kampala. I have sold firewood and I have taken my children to school with the money I get from it,” says Joseph Kissule, who sells firewood in Kalerwe, a poor suburb of Kampala.

The bulk of charcoal that is sold in Kampala comes from surrounding districts: Nakasongola, Kiboga, Bugiri, Kamuli and Kayunga. Some come from smaller forests around Kampala, like Mpigi and Mukono, where charcoal burning is done.

‘’Most customers prefer charcoal because it is affordable,” says Julius Kibombo, a resident of Nateete, another suburb of Kampala. For him, spending over 80,000 shillings (40 U.S. dollars) a month on electricity is far too high. A sack of charcoal costs 6,000 shillings (4 U.S. dollars).

In May 2001, government increased electricity tariffs by 60 percent from 100 shillings to 168 shillings per unit for domestic users. An average house uses 500 units, much of which goes in cooking and heating.

‘’For an average Ugandan, that (tariff) is too high," says Kibombo.

Government is planning to expand the Kiira dam, located along the shores of Lake Victoria, so an extra 80 megawatts of electricity can be produced for wider distribution.

In 1999, government signed a contract with an American company, AES Nile Power, for the construction of another dam at Bujagali in Jinja, 80 kilometres east of the capital Kampala, to provide power – along with the other power stations – for the whole country. The deal created a lot of controversy between environmentalists and industrialists. The project came to a halt, with main donors and other partners withdrawing.

‘’In my view, the construction of the Bujagali dam would have even made the problem worse. Yes, there would be more electricity generated, but the tariffs would have also gone up,” says an engineer at the ministry of energy, who prefers anonymity.

Not all the 320 megawatts of electricity, generated from Nalubaale, Kiira and Kasese, are being consumed due to high tariffs.

Under old government policy, tree planting could only be done in forest reserves, and, by government. A new policy encourages locals to plant trees.

Acaye Godfrey, Chief Forest Officer at the department of forestry, says Uganda’s forestlands have been receding over the years due to increased populations, needing more land for agriculture, industrial development, as well as felling trees for energy.

Before independence from Britain in 1962, between 30-40 percent of Uganda was covered with forest. Today, only 6-7 percent of the country is covered with forest, says Godfrey. Brick burning for construction is also causing deforestation, he says.

Local people, felling trees for energy, also use the fertile soils for cultivation as well as for grazing.

The forest department links up communities or individuals, seeking to plant trees, provide them with technical knowledge and, sometimes, with resources for nursery production.

‘’Right now, because government does not have enough resources for tree planting, the department encourages small farmers to acquire land in forest reserves which are open, to do their own planting. The trees belong to them, but the land still remains that of government,” says Godfrey.

‘’Quite a number of people have taken it up and it is very successful,” he says.

Interested local farmers apply for a five-year permit and are allocated five acres of land to start with. In that way, there has been significant amount of planting and care across the East African country. Under a five-year European Union programme, funds can be accessed by those interested in planting trees specifically for timber. The project started July last year.

‘’We want to zero on few species (of trees) that have shown promise à however, we will try some other species that are relatively fast growing, provided they do well in the country," says Godfrey.

Currently, farmers prefer eucalyptus tree, which grows very fast. Farmers plant up to 50 acres.

‘’The bulk of deforestation takes place in the forest reserve outskirts which currently constitute 70 percent of the forest cover in the country,” says Acaye.

The effects of deforestation are vast. While forests create fertile soil and act as water catchment areas, they have a bearing on livelihood, including temperatures.

‘’Being an agricultural country, as Uganda is, we really need to protect our trees,” says Achaye.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates 100,000 hectares of trees are cut down in Uganda annually. And, as long as, the high electricity tariffs continue to hurt potential consumers, use of fuel wood will always remain the best option.

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