Charcoal production: Crisis or opportunityBy DOREEN NAWA
BEING the cheapest source of energy for not only Zambia’s poor but also the middle-class, usage of charcoal is vital countrywide.
Amid calls from national, regional and international communities on sustainable production and consumption of charcoal, the country is at crossroads.
Charcoal production is one of the major drivers of climate change because of its production process and the link between charcoal production and deforestation.
Currently the situation has been received with mixed feelings because besides being the cheapest source of energy countrywide, charcoal is also perceived as a quicker and easier way of earning money for both mostly the rural and urban populace.
It is with no doubt that drivers of charcoal production include high poverty levels, lack of employment and alternative livelihoods and these put Zambia’s forest at risk following the ever-increasing number of people in charcoal production.
Nchimunya Mweemba, a charcoal trader at Lusaka’s Mtendere market says charcoal business is the most convenient for her because it does not need huge capital for its start.
“We have been in this business for quite some time. I and my husband usually give each other shifts, at the moment I am here and he is in Kalomo for charcoal production. Once the charcoal is ready for sale, he will transport it here [Lusaka] where it is on demand,” Mrs Mweemba says.
Seating comfortably on the remains of charcoal, Mrs Mweemba makes her cup of sweet late evening tea at the market, prodding the coal embers beneath her kettle.
“This is home. I spend my whole time here at the market selling charcoal and once it is finished my husband will come with more sacks and I will go back to Kalomo to check on the children,” Mrs Mweemba says.
Asked why she cannot venture in farming instead of charcoal production, Mrs Mweemba had this to say, “But the rains do not come on time anymore. Instead of starting in November, you find it starts in December and stops early. You will find that by February the rains are gone. And if you have planted maize, the yield will be very poor not even enough for consumption that is why charcoal production is the best option for us in rural areas.”
But it is not the government that is sanctioning the chopping of the hardwood; it is the choice of the charcoal producers because charcoal made out of hardwood is more attractive.
“Demand for charcoal in the urban areas has created a market for the production of charcoal. It is undisputable that charcoal is a cheaper source of energy compared to electricity, charcoal is a major source of income for people in rural areas,” one of the consultants Jacob Mwitwa said at the presentation of the two recent charcoal studies in Zambia at Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka.
Zambia’s hardwood forests are falling prey to poor villagers who are chopping down trees and surviving off the proceeds from selling charcoal.
Mostly these poor villagers are jobless and have little opportunity to support their families and charcoal production is the easiest business venture.
The Forestry Department (FD) estimates that up to 300,000 hectares of forest were being cleared each year.
According to FD director Annie Masinja, now the rate of deforestation could be almost twice that.
“Zambia has one of the highest rates in terms of deforestation. It has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation in a place where the rainy season has already been cut in half. As you may be aware, forest plays an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change,” Mrs Masinja says.
According to Mrs Masinja, government has made unproductive attempts to curb the destruction of the forests.
Government has banned the production of charcoal without a licence and the cutting down of trees in natural reserves like game management areas and areas gazette as forest reserves.
The ban has not been effective following little option that charcoal traders have for survival. But with the high unemployment levels among the rapidly growing population, charcoal production becomes an easy and worthy business venture to engage in.
According to the two studies recently launched, less than 20 percent of Zambians have access to electricity making charcoal the only option.
A 25-kilogram sack of charcoal (malasha) costs between K25,000 and K35,000, a substantial sum for something produced at little or no cost at all.
For those that can not afford to buy a sack of charcoal, the commodity is even more affordable at the market.
Once the bag of charcoal is taken to the market, the sack can be divided into smaller piles, tucked into translucent pastel plastic bags selling for as low as K1,000.
Another consultant on the recent two charcoal studies in Zambia Davison Gumbo says Zambian charcoal is particularly popular in the region because of its renown for burning cleanest and longest.
“From our study, we found out that the charcoal produced in Zambia does not only end up in Zambia, a lot of it is being exported to other countries and is on demand. You may wish to know that charcoal production is in three categories: those that produce on a larger scale [export purposes], the seasonal producers [mostly peasant famers] who produce just to buy inputs and the youths [Those that produce just to have money],” Mr Gumbo says.
According to Mr Gumbo, Zambia’s charcoal is made from the country’s precious hardwood and burns longer that other charcoal from Zambia’s neighboring countries.
Mr Gumbo says during the study, most non-Zambians they came across, recommended the Zambian charcoal.
On the Great East Road, an hour barely passes without seeing Fuso trucks transporting charcoal to Lusaka where the commodity is on demand.
And one may wonder, is there hope for trees in Zambia? And the answer is yes. Minister of Lands, Natural Resources and Environment Protection Wylbur Simuusa says there is hope following Zambia’s engagement with various stakeholder and international partners on how best to address the production and consumption of charcoal in the country.
“From the two studies presented to us, I can see that charcoal production hinges on the survival of most people especially the rural populace. As government we will ensure that we consult widely before taking any step.
You can ask people not to cut down trees and not give them an alternative and we are here to learn from our partners like the Finish government and the Food and Agriculture Organisation including numerous partners I cannot mention name by name here,” Mr Simuusa says.
Knowing that others outside Zambia are speaking the conservation language, it helps Zambia to start tentative shuffling steps in that direction.
An aerial view over Zambia in the dry season looks like a nation on fire with smoke filling the sky.
Many of these fires are started by people busy cutting trees to make charcoal or clearing new land for farm land. Charcoal production is increasing at alarming rates in Zambia and is contributing to large-scale land degradation, habitat loss, watershed damage, down-river flooding and huge carbon output.
Forest products do not only include charcoal, among the forest product is honey, a product too on high demand following its healthy values.
Charcoalers are eager for an alternative source of income and most recognize the practice is destructive and harms their future but lack the technical knowhow on how to harvest honey from the forests.
To reverse the alarming deforestation levels in Zambia, the need to mobilise and train communities in alternative livelihood skills like honey production is vital.