THE place is filthy, everything in the vicinity has been painted black by dust from a nearby ramshackle. An old man dressed in tattered, soot-coloured clothes is seated besides a heap of bags loaded with charcoal. Many people will be forgiven to think that the man is a vagabond sitting outside a shack.
A lady suddenly appears carrying a plastic container and goes straight to the old man who feebly puts on a smile and greets the lady with expectation. The lady hands over money to the man who without asking puts some charcoal into the plastic container and she thanks the old man before going home.
Scores of other customers could be seen trickling to the place to buy charcoal from this man who operates this tiny business without protective gear, exposing himself to dust.
This scenario resembles various points in Dar es Salaam where charcoal, considered the main source of energy for Tanzania’s urban population, is sold as it provides a cheaper source of energy especially for the ordinary person.
It remains true that charcoal provides not only a cheaper alternative in the face of ever increasing costs of other sources of energy such as electricity, but sees many people eking a living out of the production, distribution and selling of the product. But, if sanity is not restored in the sector, it remains a fast-ticking environmental time bomb as it leads to environmental degradation and current changes in weather patterns.
According to the World Bank statistics, it is estimated that several tens of thousands of rural and urban entrepreneurs in Tanzania earn vital income from charcoal production and trade. One million tonnes of charcoal are produced and consumed in the country while the annual supply of wood needed for this is estimated at 30million cubic metres.
“At present, the contribution of Tanzania’s charcoal sector to employment, rural livelihoods, and the wider economy is estimated to be in the region of $650m per year, providing income to hundred thousands people in both urban and rural areas.”
These, according to the WB are members of poorer households, who work as small-scale producers or traders, and who often have limited alternatives for earning a living.
Just like other charcoal traders in most suburbs in Dar es Salaam, the old man, gets the commodity from wholesalers who use haulage trucks to transport bags of charcoal.
Though the prices of charcoal have been increasing over the past years, dealers in Dar es Salaam are getting a bag of charcoal at 30,000/-. They buy as many bags as they can as long as they have the money, but have to make sure that the product remains available because it is in demand.
“I sell charcoal at 500/- per 5litre tin and I can sell as many bags, depending on the day but on average I can sell four bags per day, on a good day I can even sell four and half bags or more,” said the old man, John Jabu, who operates in Tandika, Temeke District.
The business, according to him, helps him fight the effects the global economic crisis and has been in it for many years now, as his source of income to take care of his family. He has managed to provide for his family to make sure that they don't sleep on empty stomachs besides paying school fees, accommodation, clothing the family and many other family needs.
Besides being a brisk business, charcoal has been a source of cheaper energy for most households in Dar es Salaam. Statistics have it that from 2001 to 2007, the proportion of households in Dar es Salaam using charcoal as their primary energy source has increased from 47 per cent to 71 per cent.
Though charcoal has been considered as a major source of power for most middle and lower class families who can’t afford high costs of electricity and other sources of energy, it has been discovered that even other classes do use it. Electricity and gas are undoubtedly principal energy sources among wealthier households, but they still use considerable quantities of charcoal.
Major public and private institutions such as schools, bars, restaurants and hospitals also use significant quantities of charcoal.
This has seen Dar es Salaam consuming 50 per cent of charcoal produced countrywide and the trend is expected to rise. The WB estimates that the amount of charcoal consumed is expected to further rise in coming years. Signs according to them, indicate consumption levels will be increasing in both absolute and relative terms in the near and mid term future due to three main factors : Rapid population growth; continued urbanization and relative price increases of fossil fuel-based alternative energy sources.
Although charcoal comes as a relief to many Tanzanians, it leaves with it trails of destruction that if uncontrolled can lead to desertification.
According the WB, the daily wood requirement to produce charcoal, at the moment, is equivalent to that contained in 342.5 hectares of forest which amounts to more than 125 000 hectares of destroyed forests.
The above-mentioned figures call for caution as wood harvesting for charcoal is most often opportunistic, resulting in gradual degradation of forest resources over time, rather than clear-cutting over a large area leading to real deforestation.
Although some wood for charcoal, according to WB, is harvested from forest reserves under licence from government, the bulk is harvested in unreserved forest areas on village land, or on farm land being cleared for agriculture.
In such situations, little attention is given to considerations of sustainable harvesting or longer-term forest management objectives. Continual, unregulated tree removal results in deforestation and forest degradation something that negatively impacts on the protection of water catchments and watersheds, affecting energy and water supplies alike.
It remains true that there is need for politicians in the country to regulate the industry as the use of charcoal seems to be escalating by day in this country and if it goes unchecked will cause irreparable damage to the environment.
Therefore, policy interventions need to be designed over the entire value chain of charcoal utilization, considering aspects of production (tree growing, carbonization), transport, and consumption in order to salvage this country from the jaws of self destruction.