Charcoal trade: Somalia’s ticking time bomb

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African Development Bank weighs in on efforts to save country from rapid deforestation

Somalia’s sweet-smelling charcoal has for years retained its edge on the market, attracting generous margins. But this has been at a huge cost to the shrinking forest cover.

The Federal government of Somalia now plans a cut-back on charcoal trade and consumption with a US$95 million fund to provide homes with alternative energy sources. Charcoal producers have been promised different sources of livelihood.

Mogadishu is to partner with the African Development Bank (AfDB) in a plan to combat widespread felling of acacia trees for charcoal.

Past attempts have yielded little, including the United Nation’s ban on charcoal exports from Somalia in 2012, which has largely been defied. The UN ban was aimed at forestalling rapid deforestation and stopping terrorism financing.

Analysts reckon that there is indeed an urgent need to stem deforestation to avoid environmental disaster in Somalia’s dry lands.

Isaac Kalua, founder of Green Africa Foundation, says Somalia homes could reap huge economic dividends by planting more trees and selling carbon credits to rich nations that emit high levels of greenhouse gases.

“Carbon trading could be a powerful tool for reducing reliance on charcoal as a source of income, not only in Somalia but also in other African nations,” Dr Kalua said in an interview.

A carbon credit, which is equivalent to one tonne of carbon dioxide, is a permit that is sold to huge emitters of the gas as part of the United Nations’ strategy to contain emissions.

In neighbouring Kenya, farmers earn a minimum of US$ 0.02 per tree from carbon trading.

Somalia, whose population is estimated at 12.3 million, consumes about four million tonnes of charcoal per year, placing it among countries with the highest charcoal consumption per capita.

The large appetite for charcoal is driven by its lower price in the domestic market compared to that of available energy sources like cooking gas and electricity. Somalia charcoal costs much higher in external markets.

Up to 90 per cent of homes in the country rely on wood and charcoal to cook – a trend that is fast depleting the country’s forest cover besides posing health risks, according to a report by AfDB. The wide-scale use of charcoal and government’s reliance on electricity from diesel-run generators add to the carbon footprint blamed for global warming.

Budget shortfalls and a shortage of skilled staff at the Forestry and Environment docket have also slowed efforts to regulate charcoal production and use. The government now plans to lower cooking gas prices to trigger uptake and introduce clean, energy-efficient cook stoves for the switchover from charcoal use.

Dr Kalua reckons that the State incentives to homes should outweigh gains from felling trees for charcoal and lumber, especially in rural areas, for the switchover to be effective.

The charcoal-cut programme targets 700,000 homes and 10,000 suppliers who are expected to abandon charcoal trade and take up government-backed forestry jobs to protect trees. They will also, on behalf of the State, administer stumpage fees on every tree that is cut.

Previous attempts to reduce charcoal burning proved futile.

“This programme might help cut charcoal use by one million tonnes over six to seven years, roughly a quarter of estimated current consumption, noticeably reducing pressure on the threatened, dwindling, slow-growing and precious vegetative cover,” the report says.

The AfDB has raised the red flag over thinning supply of charcoal and firewood in urban centres, forcing poor homes to cook using waste paper and plastic.

A cartel of illegal charcoal exporters has continued to fuel the trade in violation of a ban on the commodity exports.

A mix of high poverty levels and expensive alternative energy sources continue to confine a majority of the homes to charcoal use

Demand for Somalia charcoal, largely derived from acacia trees, is huge in the Middle East countries because it burns longer and has a sweet aroma, fetching high prices.

Charcoal has been a mainstay of the Somalia economy for many years, with most poor homes turning to the trade to eke a living in the midst of narrow opportunities.

A mix of high poverty levels and expensive alternative energy sources continue to confine a majority of the homes to charcoal use.

“The overexploitation of the biomass cover is a consequence of extremely limited access to modern energy, and means that essentially the only source of primary energy in Somalia is biomass,” the AfDB says.

Cooking gas is currently a preserve of a tiny share of the country’s wealthy homes, with five per cent of households using kerosene to power their cook stoves.

The AfDB reckons that lowering the cost of cooking gas (liquefied cooking gas or LPG) alone may not help much to facilitate a wide-scale switchover from charcoal use.

“Betting on LPG as a cooking fuel to replace charcoal is an uncertain proposition and is unlikely to make a significant dent in the excess use of charcoal,” says the report. “LPG will undoubtedly become affordable to larger numbers of wealthy urban households, but the broad Somalia’s tiny middle class will not be able to afford it.”

On average, Somalia homes spend about 30 per cent of their incomes on energy needs. It remains to be seen if the Federal Government of Somalia will waive taxes on cooking gas and clean cook stoves to lower prices in line with neighbouring countries, which have hinted at plans to scrap taxes on cooking gas and cylinders to boost uptake, especially in rural areas where homes use firewood to cook.

Somalia’s US$ 95 million clean energy plan is part of the larger US$ 803 million plan to boost access of homes and business to power for growth and better welfare in the next 10 years.

“The programme to reduce use of biomass fuels would assist 700,000 households cut biomass fuel use, and help convert perhaps as many as 10,000 people from charcoal producers to social forestry workers,” the AfDB says, adding that it would cut charcoal consumption by one million tonnes over the next seven years.