Premier Kassim Majaliwa’s directive to government organs like the army, the police and schools to stop using charcoal as fuel and switch to alternative and environmentally friendly sources of energy might be a game changer in the protection of our environment.
According to PM Majaliwa, switching from the use of charcoal to natural gas and other clean energy would go a long way to save the environment. His concerns are understandable, but very challenging considering that according to the 2010 Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey, firewood and charcoal account for 94.6 per cent of fuel in the country.
If the switch is to take place, it might need policy change in the next budget cycle, as use of natural gas, deepening on many factors might be more expensive than charcoal.
His directive was guided by the need to conserve the environment. The WWF reports that half of the trees illegally removed from forests are used as fuel. This leaves millions of trees destroyed every year, and sometimes, new trees are not planted.
Historically speaking, firewood has been the single most important source of fuel for the common mwananchi in our country Tanzania. This is followed by charcoal used mostly in urban and peri-urban areas by slightly more affluent family that can afford charcoal.
For Tanzanians living in urban and peri-urban areas, charcoal is the most affordable fuel. So folks in the rural settings and business people who can cut down trees, make charcoal and transport it to urban areas, are able to make a huge killing in terms of profit.
We are talking about a multibillion industry. According to the World Bank, the annual charcoal trade in Tanzania is worth $650 million (Sh1.4 trillion). The money generated by coffee and tea does not come close to that.
Last year, Mr Charles Ng’atigwa of Tanzania Forest Services agency noted that over 70 per cent (of the charcoal trade) was illegal. For many years the trade has been largely uncontrolled and untaxed. This is even as in recent years, the government has been putting in place tight regulations.
The question is despite the availability of electricity and gas in urban areas, why is the bulk of population still using charcoal? The answer lies in the cost. In rural areas almost everyone uses firewood, and there is no alternative.
The use of charcoal makes the country lose about 370 hectares of forest cover every year, noted Prof Jumanne Magembe. To change the trend, he has proposed to increase tax charged on charcoal. By doing this, he hopes the prices will shoot up and discourage charcoal trade and users.
Prof Magembe also said companies trading in gas could be ready to give out gas cookers at no cost. Can they? The companies must have been very happy for the kick, but the reality on ground is very different.
How many households can afford gas cookers? Or if they will be provided gas cookers for free, how many can afford to buy the gas for cooking? In as much as we have to protect the environment, it’s good also to consider if the majority poor in Tanzania, can afford the proposed alternatives.
For me, I think the way forward, I agree with Mr Lubera Mato, an environmental expert from Ardhi University, when he told IPS that charcoal is a predominant source of energy, and what should be done is to make it safer and sustainable. Methinks also that the government should reduce or remove tax on cooking gas so that it can be affordable to the common mwananchi. Banning or overtaxing charcoal will only cause more economic frustrations to the poor. Let us have a second thought!