Homes, hotels choke on rising charcoal prices

A charcoal seller is seen organizing her few remaining sacks of Charcoal at her stall in Kireka on November 27, 2023. PHOTOS |  ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • A closer look showed that most of the sellers had stopped measuring charcoal for Shs1,000 and Shs2,000 for fear of making losses. Only those who could afford to buy charcoal for Shs3,000 and above were able to walk away with charcoal to prepare a meal.

A visit to Kikubamutye in Kabalagala on November 28, found several residents crowded at particular charcoal selling points compared to others. The crowded points offered slightly fair prices for the source of energy that many families use to cook their meals. A closer look showed that most of the sellers had stopped measuring charcoal for Shs1,000 and Shs2,000 for fear of making losses. Only those who could afford to buy charcoal for Shs3,000 and above were able to walk away with charcoal to prepare a meal.

That is how pricey charcoal has become over the last few months.

Earlier this year, a Presidential decree was issued, banning the cutting of trees for commercial charcoal production. The Executive Order was issued under the powers given to the President by Article 99(2) of the 1995 Constitution. The decree has since then led to the continuous rise of charcoal prices in various parts of the country, and traders and consumers of charcoal alike are facing increased costs.

A mini survey conducted by this publication yesterday in Kampala, Arua, Busia, Jinja, Rakai, Kyotera, and Masaka among other districts indicated that the prices had shot up by between Shs10,000 and Shs30,000 in a short period of time, in some cases within a week.

In Kabalagala, a Kampala suburb, a small bag of charcoal which cost Shs75,000 has shot up to Shs88,000. In Gayaza area, a small bag that used to cost Shs50,000 is now sold at Shs80,000.

Traders and consumers feel the pinch

Mr Patrick Mwoyo, a charcoal supplier in Kitintale said the prices of charcoal will continue to skyrocket since most of the charcoal is made and collected from the countryside and they spend a lot of money on fuel and bribing some of the soldiers deployed along the way to deter charcoal business.

“Transporting charcoal is risky. Sometimes, charcoal is confiscated by the environmentalists, police and soldiers. Sometimes, we end up using longer routes to bring the charcoal to the final consumer. A bag of charcoal in Nebbi costs Shs35,000 but we have to sell it at a higher price to compensate for the time we spend on the road dodging officers or money spent on bribes,” Mr Mwoyo said.


He also noted that the ban on charcoal business in some districts in northern Uganda have limited supply and increased demand, leading to a hike in prices. Mr Mwoyo noted that Ugandans will continue to bear the brunt of the directive since the majority rely on charcoal for cooking.

For Ms Caroline Namusoke, who operates a restaurant in Kitintale, this means costs of operating have also increased as she is already feeling the pinch; she has to part with Shs90,000 to purchase a small bag of charcoal.

“When the President bans charcoal business, it is us the local people who suffer. I appeal to government to engage the charcoal suppliers and agree on how they can conserve the environment, but also continue with their business without being harassed or exploited by security personnel,” Namusoke said.

Reasons for the hike

Many traders cite bribing soldiers as a reason as to why the prices have hiked. Don Kazoba, a charcoal supplier from Kikubamutwe, Kabalagala in Makindye Division said they have been forced to hike the prices since they have to bribe their way through, or use rural routes for fear of being arrested.

“The soldiers disturb those burning, buying and transporting charcoal. Before the decree was passed, I used to spend a bribe of Shs100,000 on the way but now, I have to spend between Shs1.5m and Shs2m to transport 200 bags of charcoal from Hoima to Kampala. Some people have quit the business due to the high operational costs,” Mr Kazoba said.

Men transport charcoal in Kumi Town last week. A sack of charcoal in the area costs Shs70,000. PHOTO/DENIS EDEMA

He noted that transporting charcoal from Kyalusesa to Hoha within Hoima, costs him bribes worth Shs800,000, in addition to about Shs200,000 spent on various security personnel along the way.

Kazoba said they are forced to pay them so that they don’t confiscate their charcoal, adding that a small bag of charcoal goes for Shs30,000 at the source in Hoima. Each bag is transported from Hoima to Kampala at Shs2,000 in addition to paying a forest levy of Shs5,000 per bag.

He also said that sometimes, their charcoal is confiscated by soldiers in Kampala on arrival and heaped at a certain point in Nakawa Division. The business can be a difficult one and the high prices end up being pushed onto the consumer.

In line with that, Ms Loyce Amviko, a dealer in charcoal business in Arua City, believes the rise in prices has been caused been an increase in demand from Kampala as well as enforcement by the National Forestry Authority where some of the charcoal is impounded from.

“I used to buy a sack at Shs25,000 and sell at Shs38,000 six months ago. But now a sack costs Shs45,000 and I sell at Shs60,000 because the transport cost has risen too,” she says.

Some dealers in Adjumani town however, attribute the rise to the ongoing rainy season.

A dealer in Awindiri market, Ms Afisa Bako, said they used to buy a sack of charcoal at Shs25,000 but now they are buying a bag at Shs35,000.

"I have now increased a basin of charcoal that we used to sell at Shs5,000 to Shs7,000. But my customers have reduced also, some of them now opt to use firewood," Bako said.

Ms Jesca Lindrio, who uses charcoal to cook at home said she is now using charcoal carefully to ensure a bag of charcoal can last.

“Sometimes I have to get firewood and cook. The problem is people are still too poor to afford using gas or cooking with electricity which is expensive,” she said.

Meanwhile, hotel and restaurant operators have also hiked food prices. A number of the smaller restaurants have increased the prices of meals by Shs1,000 while the hotels have increased by Shs2,000.

In Jinja, Masaka, Rakai, Kyotera, and Busia, the hike in prices has been attributed to the decree and heavy rains that have affected its transportation to the consumer due to slippery roads as well as the presidential decree.

“We get charcoal from rural areas but most of the roads are impassable due to heavy rains. This has pushed the prices up but we have hope that when the rains stop, the prices will reduce gradually,’’ the Chairperson of Jinja Integrated Charcoal Traders Association, Mr Robert Obaale, said.

According to him, the price of a bag of charcoal has increased from Shs60,000 to Shs80,000 in some parts of Jinja City.

The districts of Busia, Namutumba, Masaka City and Kyotera have also seen price hikes of between Shs15,000 and Shs40,000.

In Soroti however, the prices have remained the same. A bag of charcoal from ordinary trees costs Shs50,000 while that of Shea butter tree costs Shs75,000.

Soldiers not taking bribes

In reaction to the comments from traders who say they have to bribe soldiers, the spokesperson of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, Brig Gen Felix Kulaigye refutes allegations of extortion saying the soldiers were deployed to prevent charcoal trade.

“We deployed soldiers to deter charcoal trade not to charge,” Brig Gen Kulaigye said.

Environmental activists in June this year warned that Uganda will continue to suffer from the severe effects of climate change, including floods and prolonged droughts unless they embrace environmental conservation measures such as tree planting.

According to the National Forestry Authority (NFA), the country’s forest cover decreased from 54 per cent in 1900 to 12.4 per cent in 2017, meaning that 1.2 million hectares of forest cover were lost during the period.

Women sell mounds of charcoal in Payira trading centre, Alwi Sub-County in Pakwach. Each mound goes for Shs500 The prices of charcoal have in the recent past risen to staggering levels. Photos by Stephen Otage.

Statistics at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development indicate that about 80 per cent of Ugandans are dependent on biomass, which is the burning of renewable energy generated from burning wood, plants and other organic matter.

What are the alternatives?                

While officiating at the opening of the 19th Energy and Minerals Exhibition held in Kampala between November 13 and 18th, 2023, the  Minister of Energy and Mineral Development,  Ms Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu said Ugandan should consider shifting from biomass to clean cooking energy such as biogas, ethanol, electricity, and LPG.

Nankabirwa said that biomass in the form of firewood, charcoal, and crop residues has continued to be the main source of cooking energy.

“About 86 per cent of the total primary energy consumption is generated through biomass. Firewood, charcoal and crop residues contribute 76.2 per cent 5.5 per cent, and 4.5 per cent respectively. Currently, cooking energy share stands at 97 per cent of biomass,” she said.

The minister stressed the need to change the mindset of Ugandans so that they can shift from cooking using biomass to clean energy.

She said several Ugandans had shunned cooking using gas not because they couldn’t afford, but they have labelled it as being dangerous.

The ministry estimates that currently, only 0.8 per cent of the estimated 10 million households use gas for cooking. On the issue of access to electricity, Nankabirwa said access stands at 58 per cent of which 20 per cent is on the grid and 38 per cent is off the grid.

She noted that more connections are expected under Electricity Connection Policy (ECP) where people who have poles near premises will be connected freely but they have to do the wiring by themselves.

In addition to the above, Mr Solomon Muyita, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Energy said the government had committed Shs900b to pay for the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), kits and also set up infrastructure for distributing LPG in the country in a period of five years.

However, the money for the 2023/24 financial budget was not released due to competing interests.

He said the ministry is expected to distribute 200,000 13kg cylinders per year to households along with important accessories and set up storage facilities in different regions of Uganda.

Efforts to make electricity cheaper

Mr Muyita said the government has put in place a cooking tariff where if one buys electricity worth Shs120,000 a month, they get about 70 units at half the cost, which should be able to take care of their needs, depending on the size of the family, for a month or more.

“Charcoal tends to be more costly than LPG and electricity. However, many people think it is cheaper because they keep buying it in small quantities,” he said.

Additional reporting by Felix Warom Okello,  Philip Wafula,Tausi Nakato, Marko Taibot,  Clement Aluma, Richard Kyanjo, Simon Peter Emwamu.