Environmental Talk: Charcoal, Uganda's Darling Fuel
Charcoal, packaged ready for sale.

Environmental Talk: Charcoal, Uganda's Darling Fuel


Each batch of charcoal is made in its own oven, which is broken apart to retrieve the charcoal after the burning process.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: March 20, 2008


Charcoal is a combustible material obtained by heating organic material in the absence of oxygen. In Uganda, the material most commonly used to generate charcoal is wood. We all know that charcoal production is partly the reason why Uganda is losing her forest cover alarmingly fast. If you were to stand alongside most of the highways leading into Kampala and count the number of trucks bringing this type of fuel into the city, you would truly be shocked.


There is no market in Uganda where charcoal is not sold (usually in tons) and few households (even affluent ones) survive without a sigiri – a compact type of barbeque popular in Uganda. Despite the dangers that come with, and the practical inconveniencies of using sigiris, they are usually the first items that families moving house load on the mover's truck. This therefore brings us to the question; why is charcoal so popular in Uganda as a form of domestic fuel?

In Uganda, charcoal has all the reasons to retain its status in the kitchens. Trees (and for that reason wood) are still very widely available in most rural areas of Uganda. The volume is fast dwindling but this fact is not very evident to the charcoal producers. Even if it was, there are economic implications that encourage them to ignore the signs. It is either the trees or their livelihoods at stake here.

Compared to electricity and gas (the latter is commonly vended in cylinders in Uganda), charcoal is a far cheaper source of cooking/heating fuel. In a country where more than 60% of the population live below the poverty line, it is very ambitious for any one to expect Ugandans to use electric and gas cookers. Even the few Ugandans that own and use such cookers complain very loudly about the cost of sustaining them. The unpredictable nature of electric and gas supplies in the country is another inconvenience such owners have to bear in their efforts to avoid using charcoal. In Uganda, a lot of ironing is also done with the help of irons that are heated by charcoal. The nature of the thermostat (for temperature control) used by these irons is a marvel in itself. The faster the iron is swung to and fro by arm (and therefore the hotter the embers), the hotter the iron!

Charcoal production (at least in Uganda) does not require any special skills. Trees are felled, split into convenient chunks, let to dry and then baked in an oven made out of mud. Each batch of charcoal is made in its own oven, which is broken apart to retrieve the charcoal after the burning process. For this reason, many unemployed men in rural Uganda find employment in making charcoal relatively easy. Any skills required in the business are learnt on the job. With unemployment levels that match the degree of poverty in Uganda, you can imagine what this means for the remainder of Uganda's forests. Unfortunately, this also means that the efficiency with which wood is turned into charcoal is sometimes very low, leading to excessive waste.

How then, can the widespread use of charcoal and therefore the loss of our forests be discouraged? For starters, electric and gas costs in Uganda should be reduced. At the moment, the government of Uganda sells electricity from the country's existing pair of hydro electric power dams and diesel generators at prices dictated by the demand that exists. If the government were to subsidise the cost of using mains power for most, if not all users, it would make electric cookers more popular. The same would apply to gas and an even more sustainable source of energy – solar. Enforcing bans on charcoal production and use would help little as long as alternative sources of energy are not widely available or affordable enough. Ugandans need energy. If it cannot come to them through wires, solar panels and gas cylinders at a cheap enough price, they will harvest it from the forests.

By Ivan Kibuka-Kiguli
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First published: March 20, 2008
The author is a pollution control equipment engineer/consultant and a proud active member of UGPulse.