Nasarawa State produces most of the charcoal used in Abuja, the nation's capital and other neighboring states. How is this common household product made is what Weekly Trust has explored in the furnace-world of charcoal making in Nasarawa State.
Kokona Local Government Area is home to many charcoal producers in Nasarawa State and some villages in Karu. As one drives from Akwanga to Kokona, assorted bags of charcoal are displayed by the roadsides to attract buyers. This is the same scenario along Keffi-Jos road.
Tudun Mangoro is a major market as hundreds of bags of charcoal are sold to buyers along Keffi-Jos road. The first impression one gets is that these charcoals are made in this area. But alas, they are made deep inside the jungle.
Through rough feeder road destroyed by rain, one could see tick forests with typical features of Sudan savanna vegetations.
At the spot where charcoal is made, there was a heap of sand with three holes, churning out smoke. The owner is Magaji Bala. Pointing at a heap of charcoal, he said "I have just extracted this one now."
Bala said charcoal making is very difficult because of the excessive heat, adding that "I must take milk today otherwise I won't feel comfortable."
Making charcoal starts with piling logs of wood. The maker may choose to either use completely dry wood or fresh ones. Where one chooses to use fresh woods, he or she must put dry ones in between them. No matter the size of the fresh logs, the furnace inside the heap of sand will consume it.
It was gathered that the woods for the charcoal must not be allowed to touch the ground, because if it does, it will not burn! To prevent the woods from reaching the ground, they are placed on other smaller ones in the shape of a square. It is after this process that the whole woods will be arranged in vertical or horizontal format. This method is, however, different from the ancient method where woods were piled on their ends in other to form a conical shape with opening being left at the bottom for air passage.
However, if the woods are fresh, dry smaller ones must be placed between them. The essence is that the dry ones will burn faster to generate the required heat that will dry up the fresh ones within three to four days inside, thereby paving way for it to be burned.
Once the woods are arranged accordingly, it is covered with leafs, leaving only a small opening. This opening will enable the burner to light up the woods before covering it completely. The essence, according to Zakariah Mamman, a charcoal farmer is to stop the sand preventing the woods from burning.
The next step is to cover the leaves and the woods with sand, except the small opening that will have to wait for at least 10 minutes or so, depending on whether the woods are fresh or dry. After doing this, the farmer then gets small pieces of sticks and put them together in that opening which must contain dry woods and sets fire on it. He waits and certifies that the fire catches the dry wood inside, and then he covers the space with leaves and seals the place with sand.
Three or two holes are created in the heap in the direction of the wind. This has two significant functions namely, to allow wind to blow inside to help keep the fire burning; and two, to inform the farmer when the charcoal is ready for harvest. He knows this when the smoke stops emanating from the holes.
"When rain falls, no matter the amount of rainfall, it will not penetrate inside. In fact, the heat inside alone will dry it outside before it gets inside," Bitrus Adamu said
It takes three to four days from the day it was covered to extract the charcoal. Within these days, the farmer goes to check it twice or thrice a day, depending on the distance from home to the location. Checking it regularly enables the farmers seal up any leakages with sand. Failure to do so, the fire will burn everything to ashes.
Extracting the charcoal is the most difficult and risky aspect of the process, many farmers said. It consumes a lot of water and must be done carefully as one may likely get injured or killed. "The art must be mastered," Habila Danjuma said.
How do you harvest your charcoal? It begins with the burner getting a long fresh stick which curves at the edge. He must have enough water around. Standing from a considerable distance, he then begins to use the long stick to open the sand a little and then pours the water on the burning furnace. He must continue to do it until it finishes.
Habila warns that if you open the sand completely at once, one will lose the charcoal. According to him, if water is poured on a large opened burning charcoal, it explodes and if one is standing close, the person will be affected by the rising ashes and fire. "In fact, the more water is poured, the more the fire burns. That is the reason why you have to open it little by little," he said. Many farmers said that doing it that way is safer for them.
Mamman recounts how he spent three months producing charcoal in the forest. "I produced 80 bags of charcoal, which I sold in Masaka, and I made N50,000 from It," adding that charcoal is a very difficult thing to do and it has a lot of hazards.
A young lady, who simply identified herself as Ruth, said she will never go into charcoal making again, because it almost killed her. She was hospitalized for four days as a result of the excessive heat which dehydrated her.
"Most of our people here still produce it because they are making money out of it, but to be frank, it is a very difficult thing to do", she said.
She said they do it because of the demand and a large market exists in Gunduma a town close to Keffi, Masaka and Mararaba suburbs of Abuja.
Esther Habu and her two sons is one of the several women in the community of Angwa Monday along Keffi-Jos who produces charcoal. She admits that charcoal production is difficult but easy if one masters the art. Her son, Stephen, said he is 26 years old, but confesses that it's because of his mother, that he participates in the process, as it is extremely difficult and life-threatening. "The money generated from it helps the women," he opined.
A bag of charcoal costs N500 in the forests. "In fact, the price here does not worth it considering the labour and risk involved," Mamman said. Those who display the products along the major high ways sell a bag at N800 or N1000 depending on the size of the bag. Farmers who produce up to 40 bags and above sometimes prefer to take theirs to the markets in Masaka and Mararaba.
Along the major high ways, travelers going to the northern part of the country buy the products in large quantities. Mrs. Jummai is a charcoal seller along Akwanga- Keffi road. She said "sometimes I sell 15 to 20 bags a day especially when the buyers come specifically for it and at other times you may just sell one or none."
This is not the situation in Angwa Mangoro as many of the sellers who declined mentioning their names; said people come every moment to buy the products from them. And within a short time , five vehicles stopped to buy charcoal, most of them on long journeys..
It is obvious that the charcoal industries are fast growing and many are making brisk business trading in the products. Charcoal is more accessible than kerosene that has now become a scarce commodity in households.
Charcoal is an impure carbon obtained by distillation of wood, which heats it in the absence of oxygen. It is a light-black residue consisting of carbon and ashes from the distilled wood.
In Nigeria, charcoal is fast becoming a source of metallurgical fuel, especially with the continuing shortage of kerosene for domestic use in most parts of the country.