Why charcoal export bans in Uganda have failed to work

Charcoal in front of storage sheds in Busia Uganda. Photo by Dicta Asiimwe

What you need to know:

While charcoal remains a lucrative business and creates employment for many, it brings along with it many problem, one main one being deforestation. In a two-part series, we look at why one of the suggested solutions, banning it, is not working.

In Busia, just behind Kenya’s storied customs building, there is a stretch of about 50 meters covered in so many layers of plastic garbage; it is hard to see the brown soil underneath it all.

The plastic and garbage are dumped daily by traders in Sofia Market, a space in no man’s land where sellers take cabbages, bananas, pineapples, vegetables and many other wares to find buyers from either side of the Uganda-Kenya border. As no man’s land is not in Kenya or Uganda’s jurisdiction, the garbage in this market is rarely collected.

On one side, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) offices shield Sofia Market from view. On the Uganda side, rows of temporary houses built with timber and thatched with bright silver iron sheets shelter the market.           

The temporary houses, locally known as bibanda, store charcoal in transit, brought to Busia from mostly northern Uganda by traders intent on accessing the lucrative Kenya market.

The warehouses are located at the edge of no man’s land because just after taking power in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni decided to limit the export of charcoal, since it is an exhaustible product that involves tree cutting.

To make charcoal, trees are cut and divided into logs. The logs are then lit and buried in mounds of earth to limit oxygen in a process known as carbonisation. The resulting product of that carbonisation is charcoal.

To limit the negative effects of this product on forest cover, the government amended the External Trade Act in 1987 to prohibit the export of charcoal. 

Officials at Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) also say the law that established the East African Customs Union reinforced the External Trade Act amendment.

Bob Kazungu, Uganda’s Forest Officer at the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) says that the 2004 East African Community (EAC) Customs Management Act bans the export of charcoal.

The seven members of EAC, which include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and the latest entrant Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are all signatories and are supposed to be the enforcers of the Customs Management Act. 

However, it appears different officials interpret the act differently, which in turn affects coherence when it comes to implementation. Just like Uganda’s law, the EAC law bans the export of charcoal, but officials interpret the word export differently.

“The goods specified in part B of the Third Schedule are restricted goods and the exportation of the goods save in accordance with any conditions regulating their exportation is prohibited,” reads an excerpt from the EAC customs management act. 

The third schedule of the EAC customs Management Act lists wood charcoal, timber, waste and scrap of ferrous cast iron among the items whose export is prohibited.

For example, Flavia Businge, the Acting Director of Customs at the EAC does not agree with Kazungu’s interpretation of the customs union law.

Ms Businge says that the law does not prohibit the selling of Ugandan charcoal to Kenya. According to her, the right interpretation would be that charcoal from EAC partner states such as Uganda or Tanzania cannot be exported to the Middle East.  

“Under the EAC community law, export means taking goods outside the community and not from Kenya to Uganda or any other partner state,” says Businge, whose main job is to guide EAC partner states in their implementation of the customs union and the laws for its establishment.

The different interpretations of what it means to export, makes it difficult for Uganda to use the EAC tools such as arbitration or even litigation at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ),  to stop Kenya, which banned the production of charcoal in its territory.   

Kenya banned tree logging and the production of charcoal within its borders as a way to reduce forest cover loss.

Emily Achieng, the Programme Manager at the Mombasa-based Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Africa, notes that with over 83 per cent of Kenya's land mass considered as either arid or semi-arid area, the country decided that the best way to control further desertification was to increase tree cover.

To achieve this goal, information from the National Strategy for Achieving and Maintaining over 10% Tree Cover By 2022 shows that Kenya included in its new Constitution, Article 69 (1). It requires that tree cover increases to at least 10 per cent of the country’s landmass.

Information from the last comprehensive forest cover assessment found that as of 2010 when the new constitution was promulgated, Kenya’s tree cover stood at 6.99 per cent of the country’s land mass area but increased to 7.2 per cent as of 2015.

Kenya reacted to this slow increase in tree cover, by setting a target to grow two billion trees before the end of 2022, a goal the country is set to miss by over 800 million trees. It also banned tree logging for one year in 2017.

The government extended the tree logging ban in 2018 and made it indefinite. However, there were some exceptions to allow for a short harvesting period of mature trees in public forests. As the production and trade in charcoal had been contentious before the ban on tree logging, Kenya also introduced a moratorium on the production of charcoal.  

Boda boda rider crosses the former charcoal market in no man's land with a single bag of charcoal. Photo by Dicta Asiimwe

Ms Achieng points out that the moratorium on charcoal was issued without a concrete transition plan to the use of alternative energy sources such as biogas, solar and gas. Yet, in Kenya, just like in other East African countries, charcoal is an important cooking energy source for people living in urban centres.

According to a report produced by the Global Initiative Against Organised Transnational Crime titled “The Black Gold: the Charcoal Grey Market in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan”, as much as 80 per cent of the urban population in East Africa uses charcoal as their primary energy for cooking.

The government in Kenya, however, has data to suggest their country is not as reliant on charcoal as the rest of East Africa. For instance, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, in the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, shows that only 17.7 per cent of people living in cities use charcoal. The same report also shows that 66.7 percent of Kenyans use either firewood or charcoal as their main source of energy for cooking.

Meanwhile, a different 2019 household survey on energy used for cooking carried out by the Ministry of Energy and Clean Cooking Association of Kenya found that 80 per cent of Kenyans rely solely on either firewood or charcoal for cooking.

In addition to the population in Kenya needing charcoal for cooking, the Black Gold report adds that the port city of Mombasa is a major transit route for charcoal to light hookah pipes in the Middle East.   

There is also general agreement that Kenya’s moratorium on charcoal production meant communities whose livelihoods depended on this business had to find alternative ways to survive.

The report estimates that before 2018, approximately 700,000 Kenyans who were employed in either producing or trading charcoal simply went underground and continued with the same business.

Many of those who faced job loss because of the moratorium were members of Charcoal Producer Associations (CPA) that had to come together after 2009 when Kenya passed a law requiring self-regulation of players in the charcoal value chain.

The report notes that faced with income losses, many of the CPAs came up with legal and illegal ways to maintain their role in the charcoal value chain.

Ms Achieng agrees, explaining that when Kenya started implementing the ban, smuggling of charcoal became the norm since many could not afford to prepare meals without this product.

 “A liter of paraffin retails at KShs115 (approx. Shs3,596) while a 6kg cooking gas cylinder goes for KShs1,300 (approx. Shs40, 648). This is way above the consumption reach of majority of Kenyans already struggling with inflation, Covid-19 effects, and climate change wrath,” she says.

“Boda boda (motorcycle taxis) invented panya (unofficial) routes to smuggle makaa (charcoal) even from neighbouring countries across porous border routes because the business is lucrative,” she adds.

In Busia, they do not just use boda boda because the volumes of charcoal traded here are big since this is a business between wholesaler traders in Uganda and wholesale traders in Kenya. 

Ismail, a Busia based businessperson, who would like his full name to remain anonymous says Ugandan dealers have since 2020 hired bicycle riders and musclemen to transfer the charcoal to the Kenyan side of the border.

Until 2020, Busia had a market in no man’s land where dealers from Uganda and Kenya met to buy and sell charcoal.

The charcoal grey market report notes that before Uganda’s first Covid-19 lockdown, over 200 large truckloads of charcoal were offloaded and sold in the market every day. The truckloads of charcoal reduced to 100 daily during the lockdown that ended in June 2020, and then completely fizzled out after that.

Kazungu says that in 2020, during the March to June Covid-19 lockdown, his ministry sent environmental police to raid the charcoal market that used to exist in Busia’s no man’s land. 

“We sent the environment police to raid that market because nobody is permitted to export charcoal that has been produced in Uganda,” he says.

Following interruption from the environmental police, Ismail says dealers started heading to the bibanda warehouses at the edge of no man’s land in Busia in 2020. 

Individuals such as Ismail, described by his peers as a renowned cross-border charcoal trader, start searching for a buyer once the charcoal reaches the bibanda.

“This can even take over five days, yet before lockdown, all we had to do was take the charcoal to the market,” says Ismail.

Once a buyer is found and they pay, the seller then finds muscle men, locally known as kanyama to carry the charcoal into Kenya, a few bags at a time.

When the charcoal moves a short distance to the Kenyan side of Busia, the buyer hires another set of workers to load it into trucks for transport to as far as Mombasa, which is located 939 kilometres from Busia.

Some of the loading is done next to no man’s land inside the Kenya Revenue Authority yard. The business community eager to make a profit in a region that is well known for its high unemployment rates takes advantage of KRA’s disinterest and EAC’s failure to regulate trade together to trade in cbarcoal.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

In part two, the series looks at how banning of charcoal in other countries makes the trade more lucrative in Uganda


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