You’ll never guess Northern Uganda’s biggest export

No it’s not heroin.

It’s probably not coffee, or maize, or soya beans like you might expect.

It’s probably charcoal. I don’t have solid evidence, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything else.

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A year ago, my parents and I made the mistake of travelling North to Gulu from Kampala at night. To distract ourselves from the many near death experiences, we decided to count the overloaded charcoal trucks passing from the North towards Kampala the capital. We counted 20 trucks in the first hour, then gave up counting to concentrate again on the near death experiences.

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The scale of the industry is enormous. 15 million Ugandans use charcoal every day to cook their food. As forests have been either decimated or protected in Western, Eastern and Central Uganda for faming, timber, and charcoal, the country is chopping the North down instead.

The sad thing is, Acholi people are not making most of this money. After a local person here puts in the huge effort of chopping down the tree, cutting it up and burning the charcoal, they sell it for 15,000 shillings. In Kampala its sold for 80,000, which means that locals only get 20% of the total money. The lion’s share goes to the truckers (who are usually not local) and sellers in Kampala.

Even more concerning are large commercial operations, which are regulated mostly through bribery. Poor Acholi rural citizens are cut out of the picture. Consortiums from Kampala come with power tools, cheap labour and their own trucks. Just yesterday I passed this group of 8 trucks (some are out of shot), all loaded with charcoal. A local man told me this group operated near his home. They gave his family 1 million shillings to cut down their trees (about 300US dollars). The end-sale price of the charcoal in the picture alone is 100 times that, at around 110 million shillings (30,000 US dollars). The local communities are getting the raw end of this deal, with rich officials and business people making the big money.

Big Charcoal pile.jpg

Queue predictable NGO rant… I only know of one NGO who is working in this area. There could be 100 NGOs here flailing away fruitlessly on agriculture improvement achieving next to nothing, while NGOs are not working on the biggest industry in the region. Where are the NGOs promoting more efficient, cleaner kilns? Where are the NGOs empowering local villagers to control the supply chain? Where are the environmental NGOs protecting the forest? One positive development is that USAID project GAPP has started investigating the issue in the north, and I only hope meaningful action will follow.

Part of the problem is that we know little about this enormous industry. It has only really boomed in the last 10 years, and I don’t believe that either the local or international community has woken up to either the opportunities, or pitfalls of the industry. We don’t know how much deforestation is happening. We don’t know who’s doing most of the chopping and burning. We don’t know

Will we look back in 30 years and wonder where the forests have gone? Will we wonder where the money went that should have developed our Northern region? There’s plenty to be done. Lets start doing it.

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4 Responses to You’ll never guess Northern Uganda’s biggest export

  1. Anthony says:

    I have heard rumors of charcoal being made against the law in certain areas of Uganda (though I would be incredibly shocked if it was enforced, even if that law was passed).

    Sara teaches people how to make and use fireless cookers. This means you can cook beans in 10 minutes rather than 4 hours, saving a lot of fuel/charcoal. This doesn’t save the trees though that are being used for charcoal sent to Kampala.

    One thing we can do is to keep encouraging people to replant trees. This won’t fix the injustice that is taking place though.

    • ntlaing says:

      Good points. Great to hear about the fireless cookers. I’d love to see solutions like that go big, but as of yet solar cookers, fireless cookers, briquette cookers etc. haven’t caught on in any serious way. I don’t even know what the law is, but deep in the village the law is even more meaningless than it is in towns. Replanting trees is really important for sure!

  2. Pauline Elliott says:

    When we there the Uganda govt. was trying to encourage everyone to plant a tree for everyone cut down without a lot of success. With the population explosion and increased demand all over eastern Africa the situation has got much worse.

    • ntlaing says:

      Wow that’s a nice sentiment but you’re right about the lack of success. The demand is huge, just last week Uganda banned export of charcoal to Kenya because they don’t have enough either 😀

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