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Should wood charcoal business be formalized?

Thursday January 14 2021
charcoal pic

Charcoal traders transporting sacks full of the product ready for selling in urban centres. Tanzania is facing the dilemma whether to allow charcoal making and the trade surrounding it or to completely ban it. The latter option is difficult as not many households have shifted to alternative sources of fuel for domestic use. PHOTO | FILE

By Alex Nelson Malanga

Dar es Salaam. The National Development Corporation (NDC) and a private company, Edosama, are working on a project to formalise the wood charcoal business in Tanzania. This is in bona fide efforts to protect the country’s forest cover and avert disastrous effects of climate change.

The project – whose costs are estimated at $6 million (Sh13.8 billion) – will be run by the two through a newly-formed partnership named ‘Green Gold Treasure, according to the NDC’s acting director for Research and Planning, Dr Grace Mselle.

Edosama accounts for the lion’s share of the company’s stake – 70 percent – with NDC owning the remaining 30 percent.

The $6 million input will be used for making special charcoal packaging, purchasing machines for grading charcoal and for making briquettes, as well as for the construction of warehouses at four entry points/collection centres in Dar es Salaam.

Dr Mselle told The Citizen in Dar es Salaam yesterday that, on January 21 and 22 this year, NDC will hold a task force meeting to discuss with other stakeholders on how best to formalise the charcoal business.

Stakeholders expected to take part in the meeting are officials from the ministries of Natural Resources and Tourism, Industry and Trade, the Vice President’s Office (Environment) and the Prime Minister’s Office.

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Other guests were officials from the Tanzania Forestry Services (TFS), the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA), the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC), the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and the Sokoine University of Agriculture (Sua).

“After the meeting, we will discuss how to mobilize resources for running the project,” said Dr Mselle.

But, for formalisation of charcoal trade to work, environmental stakeholders are of the view that the government should put appropriate and workable policies in place for sustainable use of the resource.

Dr Mselle revealed the plan to formalise the charcoal business about a fortnight ago, when she was making a presentation to the minister of State in the President’s Office (Investment), Prof Kitila Mkumbo, during a meeting with corporation managements.

Dr Mselle said a properly-managed charcoal industry would create significant employment and income-generating opportunities in Tanzania.

“Charcoal will remain an important element of the energy mix in Tanzania for decades,” she stated.

The Programme Manager of the Tanzania Gender and Sustainable Energy Network (TANGSEN), Thabit Mikidadi, welcomed the plan – but called for a strategy to minimize use of wood charcoal.

“Charcoal should not be our last resort – else, we will put our country at the risk of becoming a desert in the future,” he cautioned.

Going by a statement issued by the ministry for Natural Resources and Tourism on January 21, 2020, about 400,000 hectares of forest are destroyed each year through illegal charcoal production.

“Formalising the charcoal business should be a short-term plan… In the long-term, we need to come up with viable alternative energy sources,” Mr Mikidadi counselled.

Noting that people living in urban areas can generally afford cooking gas and electric energy, he nonetheless suggested using any form of energy source strictly for cooking and production, rather than for luxurious purposes.

But, he added, the problem could perhaps be more for a majority of people living in rural areas, and for whom electricity and gas are still too costly to afford.

In any case, Mr Mikidadi urged officials to provide subsidies on cooking gas so that a majority of Tanzanians can afford to use it instead of using wood charcoal.

“A 15kg cylinder of cooking gas should be sold at, say, Sh30, 000, instead of the current price of Sh50, 000,” he suggested.

Mr Mikidadi also called upon the government and other stakeholders to look into ways and means of investing in safer sources of energy.

A Climate Change Advisor at the Forum for Climate Change, Rebecca Muna, called for proper coordination of the wood charcoal business and not for its formalisation.

This, she argued, would help to minimize the adverse environmental consequences of using wood charcoal.

“We should not focus only on business, as the disadvantages would overweigh the advantages,” Ms Muna cautioned.

“We need to have plans for clean and safe energy. If we are yet to reach that stage, then the (wood) charcoal business needs to be coordinated,” she stressed – adding that it was not possible to stop the charcoal business by 100 percent because the costs for other sources of energy like gas are still too high for the majority of Tanzanians to afford.

The Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG) has always been in support of formalization of the charcoal business.

The Group’s Executive Director, Charles Meshack, said formalization could mean policy makers paying little attention to the ways in which charcoal is produced and sold – and whether the wood used for charcoal burning is harvested in a sustainable manner.

“This will set the stage for producers to make and sell charcoal in a way that doesn’t decimate Tanzania’s forests,” Mr Meshack said – adding that this would help to reduce deforestation, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

He was optimistic that the government would scale-up its crackdown on charcoal from illegal sources, and create a conducive environment for formal charcoal trading.

“We are really concerned,” he said. “They cut down trees – but don’t replace them,” he lamented.

But some activists nonetheless said that tree-planting may not be enough to save Africa’s forests. In that regard, they urged governments to spend more on alternative energy sources for poorer communities.

Until February last year, only seven percent of Tanzanian households were using Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) as their main source of cooking energy, according to the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (Ewura).

According to the 2010 Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey (TDHS), charcoal accounts for almost two-thirds of urban domestic energy usage for cooking.

The Investments minister, Prof Mkumbo, said there are more than 3.7 million people in Tanzania who are involved in the charcoal business.

However, most of them are not “recognised.”

“Formalisation of the business is of paramount importance – if only because a properly managed charcoal industry would create significant employment and income-generating opportunities in the country,” Prof Mkumbo surmised.

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