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Kenya – Charcoal: A short-term fix to energy problem

Rose Mateta has been selling charcoal by the Mombasa-Nairobi Highway since 1991. Every day she sits under a shed displaying the bags of charcoal at Kiboko town, some 200km from Nairobi.

With global oil prices steadily on the rise, charcoal trade has given the 50-year-old woman a chance to cash in on an alternative fuel as more customers adopt it. But since both kerosene and LPG gas prices are continuing to rise, charcoal is also becoming rare.
“Charcoal is getting harder to come by nowadays,” she says, pointing at the 50kg bags instead of the usual 90kg bags that used to dominate the market. Although Mateta has been able to educate two of her five children, she is worried that charcoal might not last as an alternative fuel although both rural and poor urban households are reducing their use of petroleum-based products.

Crude oil prices have been rising continuously since 1998 when the price was $10 (Sh670) a barrel. Now, the global price of crude oil has hit an all time high of $110 (Sh7,215) per barrel. For that reason, kerosene (paraffin) prices have risen almost overnight. Today, a litre goes for Sh65.

The urban poor and rural population have preferred this petroleum product as a source of energy, but now it has become too expensive like LPGs and electricity. Now, they are turning more to charcoal. Nobody knows this better than Mr Paul Mutisya who has increased his household purchase of charcoal from the monthly two bags to six bags in the last three months.

The National Charcoal Survey of 2005 shows that over 2.5 million people depend on charcoal either directly or indirectly. Taken as a way to make a living, the environment is not spared especially in the semi-arid and arid areas where rains are unreliable.

Charcoal burning is cited as one of the activities that have reduced the country’s forest cover to two per cent. This does not comply with the internationally recommended minimum of 10 per cent.

Ironically, the best charcoal is made from indigenous trees and in the landscape of Ukambani such trees are becoming a rare sight. Hills are stripped bare, and even the shrubs are not spared. The charcoal burners cut down any tree they come across.

Business Daily Africa

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