Is Uganda prepared for the looming charcoal crisis?

A man packs charcoal into bags. Mr Godfrey Ndawula, the assistant commissioner in charge of renewable energy sources at the ministry of Energy, says Uganda is overstepping the limits as regards wood consumption. FILE PHOTO

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Blossoming. As those in rural Uganda now find it harder to get firewood, families in urban and peri-urban areas are also paying more for charcoal, which the government estimates to be a Shs900b-a-year sub-sector, writes Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

Ms Grace Nakamatte, a mother of five in Kaliisizo, Rakai District, says two of her children spend at least four complete days a month away looking for firewood.

The burden of collecting firewood for the family falls on the duo, James Matovu, 15, and Emily Nayiga, 14, because their siblings are considered too young for the task and their mother, having done it since her early teens, is now happy to rely on her children in this regard.

Their father, Mr Joseph Bukenya, will not offer a hand because men are generally precluded from the exercise.

Ms Nakamatte says collecting firewood was an easier task when she was growing up in the 1970s, because the woodlands and forests were closer to home and dry twigs and branches that fell off trees were more readily available for them to collect.

Her children are not as lucky. “On the day they are supposed to collect firewood, they will be gone from morning to sunset because they have to get it from far away and it is hard to collect,” Ms Nakamatte says.

When for some reason the children are not able to collect the firewood, says Ms Nakamatte, whose husband runs a retail shop, they will have to buy it.

This family is not very different from many in the rest of rural Uganda. Firewood has been getting scarcer as woodlands and forests shrink in the face of increased demand due to the fast-growing population.

High growth rate
Uganda’s population is estimated to grow by more than 3 per cent per year, which is among the highest growth rates in the world. With more mouths to feed and new families ever emerging, the demand for energy for cooking keeps mounting.

And the worst is still to come, especially if you believe a prediction Erick Eckholm made in his 1975 book, “The Other Energy Crisis: Firewood.”

Looking at how reliant on wood for cooking many of the poor countries were, he feared that the crisis resulting from shortage of wood “will probably be longer and more difficult to overcome” than the petroleum prices crisis that the world was undergoing then.

In Kaliisizo, where Ms Nakamatte’s family lives, a 2010 study quoted by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development found that some families made return journeys of eight to 12 kilometres just to collect firewood.

As those in rural Uganda now find it harder to get firewood, families in urban and peri-urban areas are also paying more for charcoal and charcoal burning and trade, which the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development estimates to be a Shs900b-a-year sub-sector, is blossoming.

At Coo-room in Nwoya District, Mr Yasiin Kato, supervises 15 men as they pack charcoal in sisal sacks.

Mr Kato’s boss, Mr Yusuf Kisitu, who is one of the suppliers of charcoal in Kampala, first posted him to Nakasongola before relocating to Nwoya. Mr Kisitu keeps shifting his operations, moving on to other areas as harvestable trees get exhausted wherever he may be operating.
Mr Kisitu bought trees occupying 10 acres in the middle of a forest in Coo-room, which Mr Kato and others are clearing to burn charcoal.

In Nakasongola, where they first operated before shifting to Nwoya mid last year, Mr Kato estimates that they produced at least 5,000 sacks of charcoal, which was ferried to Kampala. The plan is for them to move on when the trees in Coo-room are finished.

But the accumulated effect of what the firewood gatherers and charcoal burners do, of course in addition to what the other people who harvest trees do, has left many worried.

Mr Godfrey Ndawula, the assistant commissioner in charge of renewable energy sources at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, says Uganda is overstepping the limits as regards wood consumption.

He says Uganda is over-dependent on use of tree biomass, with the demand for charcoal and firewood estimated at 44m tonnes per annum in 2013. The ministry of Energy further estimated that this demand could easily rise to 135 million tonnes per year if no interventions were put in place.

Out of the 44 million tonnes of wood demanded for firewood and charcoal per year, however, Mr Ndawula says Uganda’s available wood stock, which is estimated at 286, 000m tonnes, can only sustainably supply 26m tonnes, leaving a deficit of 18 million tonnes.

And, he adds, possibility of Uganda making up the deficit by adding “bushes, shrubs and a small portion of vegetal waste in its biomass energy mix” has not been pursued.

The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) predicted in a 2008 report that if the current rate of exploitation of trees continues at the same rate, Uganda will lose all its natural forests by 2050.

The shortage that would result from the lack of trees aside, the environmental implications of losing all the natural forests would be immense.
The trend, therefore, must change. And quickly. But changing it is a difficult task, especially since, according to the ministry of Energy, “close to 100 per cent of rural households and 98 per cent of urban households” depend on firewood and charcoal, respectively, to cook food and heat water.

Arresting the disaster
On his table at the ministry of Energy headquarters in Kampala, Mr Ndawula has documents that he says contain plans to salvage the situation. He spends his working day thinking renewable energy.

Renewable sources of energy, he says, are those “that are replenished continuously by natural processes,” including solar, hydropower, wind, geothermal energy, organic wastes, and wood.

He says whereas Uganda needs to move away from using firewood in the long run, it is still possible to sustainably rely on it for decades to come.

He says the main challenge is with the technology Ugandans use to cook, which leads to waste of wood.
“The most common cooking device in the rural households is the traditional three-stone fire,” he says, “whose efficiency is very low; about 15 per cent.”

Mr Ndawula says this method of cooking is wasteful since most of the heat from the firewood is dispersed before it gets to the cooking pot.
To promote efficiency in using wood fuel, Mr Ndawula says, the government is working “closely” with the Biomass Efficient Technology Association (Beta), which, among other things, promotes the use of energy-efficient charcoal stoves.

By using energy-efficient charcoal stoves, Mr Ndawula says, the amount of charcoal used can be halved. The ministry of Energy supports Beta to train artisans who make the stoves and popularise their use.

And the plan is much more elaborate. Mr Ndawula says the ministry is looking at the entire value chain, “from how to fell trees to how to use the trees for charcoal burning, transporting the charcoal and eventually how the charcoal can be used most efficiently”.

The plan to ensure efficient use of wood is embodied in a new document titled Biomass Energy Strategy, which is due to be propped up by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Bill that the government is readying for tabling before Parliament.

To demonstrate the need for saving wood, Mr Ndawula cites the activity of charcoal burning. He says because the technology used in charcoal burning is poor, charcoal burners only get a maximum of 250kgs of charcoal out of every 1000kgs of wood they burn.

He says the charcoal yield can be much higher if the charcoal burners first dried the wood before burning it and used more efficient kilns to burn the charcoal. He says the same is true of burning bricks.
The Biomass Energy Strategy document also details how best to fell trees to enable them to regenerate. It discourages clearing entire patches of forests or woodlands.

But in the forest in Coo-room where Mr Kato and his colleagues are operating, all the mature trees are entirely cleared, leaving a bare stretch of land.

Biogas and solar to the rescue?
Mr Ndawula admits that even with better use of the available wood fuel and planting more trees, Uganda will still need to adopt more sustainable energy sources for cooking. And, he says, biogas and solar would come in handy.

These and other sources of renewable energy are well catered for in the 2007 Renewable Energy Policy, which aimed to increase the use of renewable energy from the 4 per cent used then to 61 per cent of the total energy consumption by 2017.

Mr Ndawula does not have updated figures of the current energy mix, but he does not think that the target will be met. And part of the problem, he says, is financing.

Big plans

The big plans are in place but the money to put them into practice most of the time is not. The Renewable Energy Policy, for instance, envisaged that Shs9 trillion ($3.5b) needed to be invested in the sector over the 10 years to 2017.

Of this sum, it was projected that the government would provide only 14 per cent, with the rest being contributed by the private sector.
Donors, especially NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations, but also through the government, have played some part. But, most of the time, the efforts do not make much of an impact.

Take Imelda Nyangoma, a resident of the refugee resettlement village of Kikokwa in Mbarara District. She tells us that she has almost not used her solar cooker for over a month now, because most of the days were rainy with no sufficient sunshine to provide solar poor. The solar power cookers are incapable of storing energy and therefore one can only cook when the sun is up.

Ms Nyangoma, being one of the beneficiaries of a project that was run by the donor-supported Solar Connect Association, acquired the cooker in 2006. But Solar Connect no longer has the financing to provide free cookers to poor people and has been transforming itself into a full-fledged business selling solar cookers.

Something similar is happening with biogas. Under the Uganda Domestic Biogas Programme, Heifer International, for five years since 2009, subsidised rural farmers to build at least 5,000 small biogas plants to support cooking and lighting.

This programme, according to Ms Edina Nyamwaka, the lead engineer on the project, contributed, in kind, Shs650,000 to each farmer who wanted to build a biogas plant. The plants cost between Shs1.58m and Shs2.73m, depending on size.

With the ceasing of the donor funding at the end of the five years, Ms Nyamwaka says, the programme has now been restructured to become completely commercial, with the farmers having to foot the entire bill for building the plants. All Heifer International does now is to train users on how to operate and maintain the biogas plants.

Mr Ndawula says the government is teaming up with all such organisations, many times with the support of donors, to sensitise the people on why they need to move to using renewable energy sources for cooking.

But when this advice reaches Ms Nakamatte’s family, the family will have a big decision to make on whether to invest, say, in a solar stove or biogas plant, especially considering that the initial investment they may have to make is relatively big.

If they elect to continue using firewood for the years to come as their counterparts elsewhere use charcoal, Uganda may inch closer to the firewood crisis that Eckholm predicted.

Uganda covers a total area of 241,550 Km2. Approximately 41,743.2 Km2 or 17 per cent of this area is covered by open water and swamps; and the remaining 197,610 Km2, is land (UBOS 2011).

The current size of the conservation estate is 45,222 Km2 representing 18.7 percent of Uganda’s total land area. According to Ubos (2011), the proportion of land covered by forests was 18.3 percent in 2005. This was a decline from the 21.3 percent forest cover in 1990.

Uganda’s Energy Resources

A charcoal laden motorcycle rides past a pick-up full of charcoal in Idobo village, Lalogi Sub-county, Gulu District recently. Photo by Okello Stephen

Uganda’s energy sector comprises both locally produced and imported traditional and conventional sources of energy. Fuel-wood and charcoal dominate the locally produced traditional energy sources in the country.

The two are the most prevalent energy sources at both supply and demand levels. Electricity, petroleum products and renewable energy are the key sources of conventional energy in the country. All petroleum products are imported, while electricity is locally generated except for very limited off-set/inter-connection imports from Kenya and Rwanda.

Uganda’s internal energy potential is high but comprises of largely undeveloped hydro, mini-hydro, solar, biomass, geothermal and peat resources. Biomass accounts for more than 92 per cent of Uganda’s primary energy supplies, while imported fossil fuels and electricity supply only 4.1 and 1.3 per cent respectively. Uganda is therefore an energy poor nation with limited access to modern sources of energy particularly electricity.

State of the Environment Report 2010

The Renewable Energy Resource Base
Uganda has considerable renewable energy resources for energy production and the provision of energy services, yet they remain unexploited, largely due to the perceived technical and financial risks. These resources include: biomass, geothermal, large scale hydro, mini/micro/pico hydro, wind and solar energy.

However, with the exception of biomass, whose contribution is very significant, the remaining renewable sources (including large hydros), contribute about 5 per cent of the country’s total energy consumption.

This limits the scope and productivity of economic activities, that can be undertaken in any part of the country. Thus, it is imperative that the use of these abundant resources should be enhanced.
Source: Renewable Energy Policy