Cameroonians are burning increasing amounts of charcoal for cooking and heating as the country's electricity and gas supplies fail to keep pace with demand, raising concerns among environmentalists about growing deforestation and carbon emissions in the country.
At local markets in Yaounde, the country's capital, sales of charcoal are booming. The trade is especially attractive to young people who are jumping at a rare employment opportunity, and even older traders are now changing their wares.
"When I found out there was increasing demand for charcoal, I had to change from my ... vegetable business," said Evelyn Engonou, a trader in Yaounde. She made the switch four months ago, and now buys bags of charcoal from the East region which she supplies to Yaounde and Douala, Cameroon's economic capital.
For her, the business is profitable.
"I used to earn a daily income of 3,000 CFA francs (about $6) in vegetable sales, but now I earn over 10,000 francs (nearly $20) per day in the charcoal business," Engonou said.
"Now I can comfortably assist my husband in sending the children to school," she added.
The growing popularity of charcoal in Cameroon is an indication of a growing appetite for a power source more reliable than the country's faltering gas and electricity supplies.
Many businesses and households that formerly used gas or electricity have now switched over to using charcoal.
Cameroon's lone energy supply company, AES SONEL, and gas supply utility SCDP (Societe Camerounaise de Depot Patrolier) have not been able keep pace with the energy demands of a rapidly growing urban population.
According to figures from the National Statistics Center, the population of Douala and Yaounde, the two largest cities, has more than doubled in the last decade to more than 5 million inhabitants, out of a total national population of 20 million.
A 2010 World Bank report put the rate of electrification at just 22 percent nationally, and only 3.5 percent in rural areas.
"One can no longer rely on the use of gas for cooking, still less electricity," said Mary Atem, who runs a restaurant in Yaounde's Biyem Assi neighbourhood.
"For over a month we have not had gas supply in the market because of acute shortages and hoarding by suppliers," Atem said. "So we have to rely on charcoal and fuel wood to keep our businesses going."
Environmentalists worry that the country's persistent energy crises are a bad sign for Cameroon's already dwindling forest.
The charcoal supply for Cameroon's two biggest cities comes principally from the East region, which harbours rich forest reserves that are important for Cameroon in particular and the Congo Basin in general.
Experts fear that if the energy crisis continues unabated it could contribute to growing deforestation that could worsen climate change and lead to more severe weather.
"Charcoal is obtained from the burning of trees, and if this trend continues you can imagine the quantity of trees the country is going to lose and what impact this will have for the future," said Ebia Ndongo, director of forestry in the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.
Trees help to store carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, he said.
According to Ndongo, Cameroon is already experiencing the impact of climate change with irregular rainfall leading to devastating floods and to advancing deserts in the North Region due to uncontrolled deforestation.
"The felling and burning of trees for charcoal will obviously only worsen these climate change impacts," Ndongo warned.
The energy crisis in Cameroon reflects the bigger picture of energy scarcity in many African countries. The World Bank report said that less than a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity.
According to the report, poor power infrastructure has stalled development efforts in many parts of the continent. African economies lose on average 2.1 percent of GDP annually as a result of power shortages, it said.
The continent's energy needs are forecast to expand dramatically as rapid urbanization and economic growth push consumption to new heights.
The Cameroon government has responded to its power crisis by launching three big energy supply projects as part of an investment programme that aims to make the country an emerging economy by 2035.
NEW POWER PLANTS
President Paul Biya has laid foundation stones this year for a Memve'ele hydro-electricity dam, a Lom Pangar hydro-electricity dam and a Kribi thermal gas plant in the South and East regions of Cameroon.
The Memve'ele dam will generate an additional 201 megawatts (MW) of electricity, according to the government. The project will cost some 420 billion CFA francs (nearly $830 million), while the Lom Pangar dam, which will cost some 306 million Euros ($395 million) will create an additional 120 MW of hydroelectricity.
The government is funding the projects in conjunction with the World Bank, the French Development Agency, the African Development Bank, Exim-Bank and the European Investment Bank.
Some environmentalists have applauded the schemes but point out that the benefits will be reaped only in the longer term. Meanwhile, they are calling on the government to take stringent measures to stop the destruction of forest by local communities cutting wood for charcoal to supply to the cities.
Agustine Ngam Chia, coordinator of the Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme Cameroon, a nongovernmental organisation, said his group had teamed up with the Cameroon branch of the Pan-African Parliamentarians Network on Climate Change to offer kerosene fuelled cooking stoves to communities in Far North Region.
"The government can discourage the use of charcoal and wood for cooking fuel and energy by providing cheaper cooking stoves and reducing the price of kerosene," Ngam Chia said.
Officials agreed that the new hydro power schemes alone will not curb deforestation.
"These measures (to improve electrical supply) are not enough to fight abusive deforestation," said director of forestry Ebia Ndongo. "Cameroonians have to be sensitised intensively on the importance of trees and the need for everyone to be involved in their protection and sustainability."
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.