CHARCOAL: Scarcity and 30% price hike cause burning problem for experts
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Steven Byamukama has been vending charcoal for 20 years. His stall in Kisenyi, a low income section of Kampala city, is one of many on a charcoal dust covered and darkened patch almost a quarter of a football field. This is a dirty job and Byamukama employs an army of young men to do the heavy lifting. He handles the cash.
Like the other traders, Byamukama sells charcoal in various sizes; from longish large loads of over 75kg bags piled up on top of each other while others are in white high-density polyethylene sacks that contrast sharply with their black contents. He also displays smaller portions doled in plastic basins and discarded one litre paint tins.
The move toward the smaller portions is a result of rising charcoal prices. Many city residents can no longer afford the sack which goes for Shs80, 000, up from Shs60, 000 last year, a 30% price leap in an economy where inflation is well below 10%. According to Dr. Cornelius Kazoora, an environmental economist who has been studying the charcoal business for some time, what is happening is a “charcoal crisis.”
“Most people in Uganda are poor and the packaging of charcoal allows a person to get it for even Shs 1,000, cook a meal, and eat,” he told The Independent in an interview.
Byamukama sells a 20-litre plastic basin filled to the brim for about Shs 8000, while a smaller metallic tin called “Ddebe” goes for Shs5000.
But he complains that while the charcoal business used to be quite lucrative, his buying price has risen and his margins shrunk.
“Trees have become scarce yet the population is ever growing,” he says.
He describes how, when he started his business, it was easy to source good charcoal in the neighbouring districts of Luweero, Nakaseke and Kyankwanzi where the average distance is 50kms away from the city in central Uganda. These days, he says, most of the charcoal he sells comes from northern Uganda, at least 350km away.
Kazoora confirms this. He says people in the Cattle Corridor (Luweero, Nakasongola, Kyankwanzi, and Masindi) opened up land for plantation agriculture and livestock rearing— a development which reduced woodland in this area and has eventually affected the volume and quality of charcoal that is sold in Kampala.
To get a good stock of charcoal, Byamukama and his colleagues sometimes intercept the trucks transporting the commodity before they get into the city suburbs where competition between dealers is stiff.
He told The Independent that he now buys a sack of charcoal from truck drivers at between Shs 70,000 and Shs77, 000 and sells each sack at Shs80, 000 and, depending on demand, Shs90, 000.
Khamadi Musiimenta, another trader who has dealt in charcoal for the last 20 years in a market in Kamwokya, a suburb of the city, also recalls a time recently when most of the charcoal sold in Kampala used to come from the nearby districts and one could buy a bag of charcoal at Shs20, 000.