By Tumaini Msowoya
Iringa. Eucalyptus trees have for all practical purposes been a cash cow for an untold number of farmers in Iringa and Njombe regions, mostly used as power transmission poles in Tanzania.
But, the growers are already worried that they could lose the market for the trees, because their major buyer, the government power monopoly Tanesco, is adopting an alternative means in electricity transmission: concrete poles.
However, the government says use of concrete poles in electricity transmission does not mean that the use of wood poles will cease.
Eucalyptus has traditionally been known for its essential oil that is used as a medicine to treat a common diseases and conditions, including nasal congestion and asthma, as well as a ticks repellent.
When diluted, eucalyptus oil can also be applied to the human skin as a remedy for health problems such as arthritis and skin ulcers.
In Tanzania, eucalyptus trees are cultivated largely for sale to Tanesco as electricity transmission poles.
The government’s ban on the importation of wooden poles in 2016 forced Tanesco (Tanzania Electric Supply Company and the Rural Energy Agency (Rea) to buy locally-grown trees for power transmission poles.
But, with the continuing rise in the use of concrete electricity poles by Tanesco, tree farmers are now worried that they may ultimately lose the market that had turned some of them into millionaires in the past five years or so.
With the growing demand for local electricity poles after the government banned imports, Tanzania now has a total of 11 factories that produce wooden electricity poles.
Data obtained from the factories show that they have a total capacity of producing 4.8 million power poles a year. The current annual demand for the poles stands at 3.2 million poles.
Before 2015, Tanzania had only two factories that processed between 300,000 and 400,000 poles a year, while the demand was for 800,000 poles.
However, Energy minister Medard Kalemani, said the concrete poles were to be used special locations only, like across in dams, game reserves, wetlands and areas that are prone to fire outbreaks.
“In wetlands, eucalyptus poles are not the best option – and that is why we have decided to use concrete transmission poles,” he said recently – calling on the producers of eucalyptus transmission poles to also consider producing concrete ones.
In any case, he said, there still is a deficit of electricity poles in the country, as the concrete poles that are currently being produced meet only 58 percent of the demand for transmission poles in general.
However, eucalyptus farmers are still very much worried that a rise in the production of concrete power transmission poles has the potential to wipe them out of business. “Although the minister has assured us on this, our worry is still that if the demand for concrete poles grows, we would ultimately be out of business,” said a farmer in the Mtwango area of Njombe District, Mr Dennis Kilasi.
Mr Kilasi further said that the local poles processing firms are owned by well-established business operators who could easily shift from making power transmission poles from eucalyptus trees to making concrete poles.
Therefore, the real losers here are the eucalyptus farmers, not the processors.
Erasto Sanga, who also grows eucalyptus trees, shared similar sentiments.
“At first, the demand for eucalyptus poles was very low. It only picked p after the government decided against using imported poles – and that was when and why we ventured into the eucalyptus farming business. As of now, I have planted eucalyptus trees only on my 20-acre farm,” he said.
The director od an electric poles company known as ‘Qwihaya,’ Mr Leonard Mahenda, said he has already acquired a place in Mwanza Region where he will put up a factory for manufacturing concrete power transmission poles – and is “currently looking for another such location in Mbeya Region.”
Mr Mahenda – whose company has three wooden electricity poles processing firms in the country – said he was hopeful that the market would remain huge, thus dispelling the fears of tree farmers.
A seller of wooded electricity poles, Mr Calius Kamilo, said there was no way that demand for electricity transmission poles would go down soon – what with the government’s efforts at ensuring that electricity supplies are available even in the remote areas of the sprawling.
According to Dr Kalemani, the government’s goal is to ensure that quality transmission poles are readily accessed by every Tanzanian who wants to connect his/her house with electricity.
The Energy minister revealed that the government had given Sh2.7 billion to each administrative region as subsidy for electricity poles.
“The aim is to ensure that Tanesco distributes the poles without overcharging Tanzanians for them. This is why we always say that one must pay only Sh27,000 as electricity connection fee,” he stressed.
Noting that Tanzania used to have a deficit in electricity poles production, Dr Kalemani said this was because there were only two processing companies for wooden transmission poles in those days.
“Sao Hill and New Forest could only manage to produce between 300,000 and 400,000 poles a year, while the demand was for around 800,000 poles,” he said.
The government banned importation of electricity poles in 2016 after it was satisfied that Tanzania had enough trees that could be processed into power transmission poles.
“In fact, some of poles were being processed locally, but they were falsely stamped to show that they were imported from South Africa,” he said.
“In next to no time after the ban, we registered 11 companies that process the poles locally – and have created a total of 23,000 direct jobs … Within two months of the ban, Tanzania’s processing capacity rose to over two million poles per year,” he said.
“As we are talking now, the capacity has risen further: to 4.8 million poles per year,” he said, insisting that the market was still vibrant because countries like Rwanda and Burundi import electricity poles from Tanzania.