It is increasingly becoming difficult to discourse on pertinent issues affecting this country because immediately the opportunity for a fair discussion presents itself, a majority of us tackle it either from tribal or political leaning conclaves. Unfortunately, that’s what we seem to have done with the current debate on Charcoal burning in Kitui and the rest of Kenya.
But let’s have a look at the facts. According to a Ministry of Environment report released 5 years ago, Charcoal burning contributed a whopping KES 135 billion to the economy! – That was in 2013. Now, contrast this with remittances by Kenyans living in Diaspora in 2017 which stood at KES 166.4 billion and you will see why Charcoal burning in Narok, Lamu or Elgeyo Marakwet is equally as important as working in the US, Canada or the UK. Unfortunately, for the longest time, the trade was rendered ‘informal and difficult-to-administrate’ by the now defunct local authorities, and later on betrothed to the respective County Governments in the same manner, thus paving way for high graft. Which is why when the banning of the charcoal business in Kitui captured the headlines afew weeks ago, none of us was keen to question what measures the county government had put in place to ensure sustainable charcoal production going forward.
The Charcoal business trade in Kenya, as of 2013, employed slightly over 1 million Kenyans on a full and part- time basis! Looking at the Economic Surveys (2014 – 2017), the picture is even grimmer. The informal sector in Kenya has been creating an average of 89% of new jobs annually. 1 million of these are in the charcoal business. Every year in Kenya, more than 2.5 million tonnes of charcoal is traded, creating jobs to wood producers, charcoal producers, transporters and vendors among others. Out of these, Nairobi alone was consuming more than 700 tonnes of charcoal per day in 2013. As you would guess, these figures are definitely higher in 2018, granted the increase in the urbanization rate in Nairobi as well as in major towns such as Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa.
I am quite cognizant of the impact of deforestation on global climate change. In fact, it is estimated that 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere every year as a result of deforestation. What is saddening though, is that both globally and nationally, the debate on climate change has largely been reduced to talk shops. Every few months (or weeks), there is a global or regional conference on climate change happening somewhere in the world. But what governments and stakeholders always miss, is the urgency of alternatives for ordinary citizens. Take Kenya for instance. More than 85 percent of all charcoal produced is consumed by households in urban centers. Out of this 10 percent goes to Nairobi residents alone. We have more than 70 percent of Kenyan families that rely purely on Biomass! (KIPPRA, 2010). Kenyans who cannot afford to use LPG or electricity to cook. And these Kenyans are our relatives. Not to mention the more than 1million others employed in the trade.
As you can see, this debate is just starting. Recently, the Deputy President William Ruto issued a moratorium banning logging for 90 days. He later, in conjunction with Keriako Tobiko, the new CS in charge of Environment, formed a taskforce to interrogate and find sustainable ways of managing charcoal business in Kenya. But already there have been unrest among some of the communities, who feel inadequately involved by the taskforce in finding the much needed solution. Which begs the question; was this only a retreat spree for the members? What substantive recommendations will be captured to ensure the holistic address to this pertinent issue?
At the heart of what is slowly becoming a political debate, are millions of Kenyans involved in the trade either directly or indirectly, who are simply looking out for their own sustenance. Both levels of government therefore need to be deliberate about taking a value-chain approach that ensures that logging is done responsibly and within the law, that the local traders are equipped with production skills aimed at modernizing their trade. Additionally, the government and stakeholders need to work together in eliminating the high levels of corruption involved and supporting the charcoal producers with sustainable ways of producing charcoal, including the production of briquettes which are a hundred times more economical and environmentally viable. Lastly, the governments needs to proactively lead the deforestation campaign in the same way India did; planting 60 million trees in just under one day!
Otherwise, we can keep talking and politicking like we always do about Charcoal, or we can choose do something about it.