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The majority of Ugandans who depend on charcoal and firewood for cooking will have to brace themselves for harder times ahead as the price of charcoal continues to soar and experts warn that the trees which are a raw material for the production of charcoal are depleted
National Forest Authority(NFA) spokesman Moses Watasa notes that the ever rising prices of charcoal is a big problem and blames it on the excessive demand for charcoal especially in urban areas while other alternatives like power are too costly and unreliable for the average Ugandan to afford.
"Electricity is very scarce these days and the demand for charcoal has been growing astronomically. Research carried out recently shows that the demand for charcoal had risen to 2.2mn bags in Kampala alone, " he says in an interview adding that the situation is getting unsustainable.
He adds that the country is fast running out of mature trees that would provide the much needed charcoal stressing that there is need to aggressively plant fast growing trees so as to address the scarcity.
Current figures indicate that charcoal consumption in Kampala is estimated at 205,852 tonnes per year with an increase of six per cent annually while countrywide, charcoal consumption is put at 723,014 tonnes annually.
Majority use wood fuels
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) National Household Survey 2009/10, most households in Uganda use solid fuels for cooking namely charcoal, wood and other biomass fuels.The survey indicates that 95 per cent of the households still use wood fuels (wood and charcoal) as the main source of energy for cooking.
It adds that firewood was most commonly used by the rural households (86 per cent) while charcoal is commonly used by urban households (70 per cent). The figures further show that in Kampala, 75 per cent of households use charcoal as the main source of fuel for cooking.
"It is worth noting that the proportions of households that used electricity for cooking was still very low which could be due to the high tariffs charged per unit," the survey notes, adding that improved cooking technology which involves the usage of energy-saving stoves is being promoted as a way of reducing firewood consumption and deforestation in general.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni disclosed recently that he is holding discussions with scientists at Makerere University to find a sustainable alternative to charcoal whose price has tripled lately.
He says government would intervene by working with scientists so that they can produce briquettes which are a form of processed and cleaner charcoal.
Experts say charcoal briquettes are one of the alternative energy sources that are made from biomass residues like sawdust and apart from being cheaper than charcoal, briquettes produce less smoke.
Richard Kisakye, an expert, says the rising cost of charcoal is both good and bad ."When charcoal becomes expensive, wastage will be avoided since the process of making charcoal is in itself a waste of energy.Less than ten per cent of the energy in wood is converted into charcoal and the rest is burnt to ash and gases, " he was quoted as saying.
According to the 2010 ministry of Energy and Mineral Development Statistical Abstract, there was an increase in the national grid electrification rate from one per cent in 2001 to six per cent in 2010 and a total of 1,346, 890MWh of hydro power, 85,100MWh of co-generation and 1,024,000MWh of thermal diesel were generated in 2010.
It adds that electricity demand increased from seven per cent to nine per cent from 2009 to 2010 respectively and in 2010, a total of 32,220MWh and 76,705MWh of electricity were imported into and exported out of the country respectively while energy losses experienced within the same year stood at 73,654MWh.
The Statistical Abstract states that the Ugandan generation system has a total installed of 608.495MW with the two largest hydro electric plants (Kiira and Nalubale) contributing 380 megawatts. The remainder is made up of 170.995 megawatts of reciprocating plants operating on fuel oil and diesel, 29 megawatts of bagasse plants and some small hydro plants.
Increase in production
The publication notes that 2010 is the year that saw the highest national production of fuel wood and residues since 2005, with an overall increase in their national production of 21.8 per cent and 17.1 per cent respectively from 2005 to 2010.
"Similary, consumption of fuel wood, charcoal and residues was highest in 2010," it notes adding that the overall proportion of biomass production in relation to other forms of energy has been declining since 2005.
It adds that Umeme, the retail power distributor company's energy sales have been increasing annually since 2007 citing a 12.3 per cent increment that was realized in from 2007 to 2008 while a 9.6 per cent increment was realized from 2008 to 2009. Additionally, a 16.2 per cent increase in energy sales was also realized from 2009 to 2010.
A recent report in the government media mentions alternative sources of energy for cooking including electricity which it notes is clean and convenient but is rather costly for cooking and is not accessible to a big part of the population with only five per cent of the population connected on the national grid.
Gas, which is also a potential alternative for consumers in urban areas, is currently being used by only one per cent of the households in the country while biogas, which is derived from animal waste, is not yet very popular because its technology used to manufacture biogas is not common.
A four-year pilot initiative being implemented with the support of United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) will be undertaken to encourage charcoal producers and land owners to plant trees in an effort to replenish the dwindling stock.
By Geoffrey Muleme