ON the outset let me thank the Almighty God for keeping us well spiritually and bodily. Also let me thank the management of some media houses that supported the debate on charcoal which was broadcast live by one of the TV stations last week.
Charcoal (popularly known as 'mkaa' in Kiswahili) is a commodity that touches the lives of the majority of households in urban areas. Indeed, it was the theme that caught attention based on my long experiences that without charcoal many people in urban centres would find life unmanageable.
I would like to commend Hon. January Makamba, Minister of State in the Vice- President's Office (VPO) - Environment and Union, for his well articulated and important data and issues that he talked about during the debate.
Accordingly, he made a brilliant kick-off after sharing good information to the public however, other speakers also made useful contributions thereafter.
Unfortunately as we debate on the matter; we are the very same people who use charcoal and firewood in our homes but tending to trivialise charcoal, yet an important source of cooking energy.
Despite the fact that biomass fuels account for nearly 90% of national energy balance; no concerted efforts have been done to making household cooking energy a priority: only petroleum products and gas are well captured in national plans and budgets.
For many years policy makers have overlooked the issue of charcoal: making little or no effort in sustaining its availability including taking measures to ensure safety and efficient use.
If conventional energy sources are well cared through the Ministry of Energy, why marginalise biomass energy?
The perception is: 'charcoal bags along the highways and roadsides can do it all' then why worry?
There is something wrong because domestic energy is more than charcoal hence household cooking energy must be part and parcel of overall national energy policy including institutional set-up and budgets as the cases are for other energy sources.
The nation must show serious concern about biomass energy including availability to consumers, as the cases are for electricity, petroleum and gas.
Charcoal is one of the forestry products and/or produces however considered easily available. It is true in a sense but if there could have been secured national will driving well instituted national mechanism to manage and control operations, including charcoal production in natural forests, availability of charcoal could not have been as easy as we think.
The Forest Act (Cap323 RE: 2002) requires all natural forests to be well protected and managed with approved management plans. In that context, no tree cutting should be allowed without legal permits.
However, few forests have management plans and worse still no adequate forest guards to enforce management plans and the law.
As a result, most forests are hardly managed hence 'open-access regime' where it is business as usual leading to unsound environmental conditions: a situation leading to food insecurity and impoverishment.
We celebrate using charcoal for cooking with beliefs that charcoal cooks food much better with excellent aroma compared to other fuels like kerosene or gas.
Furthermore, as it was vividly indicated during the debate that we believe charcoal is cheap, readily available and very affordable compared to other sources of cooking energy: electricity, kerosene or LPG and/or natural gas.
However, as cautioned by the Minister of State (VPO-Environment and Union), affordability of charcoal is largely arbitrary in real business environment.
The reason is that natural wood used to produce charcoal not included in production costs. Imagine a sixty or eighty years old tree (Mninga or Mpingo) is felled free of charge and carbonized and later claim charcoal is cheap.
This is not correct thinking but rather a kind of double standards making charcoal cheaper while using valuable tree species free of charge without taking into account the forgone environmental values and/or ecological services like Carbon dioxide-CO2 sequestration and carbon sinks.
The other dimensions that encourage wide use of charcoal are the stoves and cooking appliances also considered cheaper, produced locally compared to alternative appliances considered unaffordable.
This is somehow true but the fact remains that if charcoal business would be treated, on equal basis and making sure that all costs are covered including well economically and environmentally priced wood (no free access to sources of wood); it is possible to make charcoal competitive to other sources of cooking fuels.
In that context, the consumer will decide what type of cooking energy suits needs depending on prices, efficiencies/safety, easy access and reliability in terms of supply.
In conclusion I would advise the decision and policy makers in government and party machineries firstly, to gauge biomass energy as crucial as it is to other conventional sources of energy, which are priorities on national development agenda.
Secondly, cooking energy should not be visualized and pegged mainly on charcoal but rather a congruent of total energy mix within the Ministry of Energy.
Once domestic energy is well institutionalised in the Ministry of Energy and well-articulated domestic energy policy adopted; the experts should think and operationalised strategies that will ensure domestic energy is sustainably produced and supplied in rural and urban areas.
Thirdly, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism through Tanzania Forest Services (TFS), Local Authorities and other key stakeholders like the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG) should strive to produce charcoal from well protected and managed natural forest making sure that no more free access or business as usual scenarios.
Fourthly, TAMISEMI also in collaboration with TFS and other key stakeholders like Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI); should endeavour, through the Local Government Authorities (LGAs), to empower village governments and the local communities to protect and manage village land forest resources making sure that they are utilised efficiently and on sustainable basis including aspects of charcoal production and marketing.
● Dr Felician Kilahama is former Director for Forestry and Beekeeping Division (FBD) in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism.