Prosper Ndlovu, Business Editor
ILLEGAL firewood and charcoal vending have become a lucrative commercial practice in most parts of Bulawayo where traders enjoy growing demand, as consumers seek alternative and cheaper sources of energy.
Like all the other major cities across the country, Bulawayo has been experiencing major expansion in recent years but there have been delays in connecting power to new households. With no other energy option for domestic cooking, new suburbs such as Mbundane, parts of Emganwini, Emthunzini, Pelandaba West and parts of Pumula South, Emhlangeni, Reigate, Luveve and Cowdray Park, are a ready market for firewood and charcoal dealers.
A majority of these suburbs have not yet been connected to electricity in the past years. The power utility Zesa, has been citing resource constraints to install electricity infrastructure like transformers, poles, cables and others. Where residents have made efforts to contribute towards power connection, not everyone affords the cost, which is mainly quoted in foreign currency.
“Demand for charcoal and firewood is high these days, especially in new suburbs, which are not connected to electricity,” said a charcoal trader in Pelandaba West, who requested anonymity.
“I deal more with charcoal as it moves fast. I sell a bag for US$6 or R100 and there is an option for smaller quantities at US$1 or R20 and US$2 or R40.”
The rising costs of electricity and liquefied petroleum gas since the return to domestic currency last year have, in keeping with inflationary pressures, seen consumer spending being eroded at a time when incomes largely remain subdued. Just last week, Zesa, increased electricity charges by 50 percent in line with the approved tariff indexation model. Under the model the first 50 units of electricity for the month, which used to cost ZWL$24,50 will now cost ZWL$37. This follows the increase in the electricity tariffs of the first 50 units from $0,49 (49 cents) per kWh to $0,74 (74 cents) per kWh. The next 150 units, which used to cost $162,50 now cost $243. This follows the increase in the price of the electricity tariffs from $1,08 per kWh to $1,62 per kWh. The lifeline of 200 units of electricity now cost $280 up from $186. For 300 units and above, consumers will now go for a punitive $6,92 per kWh compared to $4,61 per kWh previously. The rising tariff has also seen households connected to electricity also opting for firewood and charcoal.
Similarly, liquefied petroleum gas, which has become a handy option for those without electricity is also priced beyond the reach of many at US$1,15 per kg or ZWL$130 or more. Some players now demand forex only, which worsens the plight of consumers, more so given that gas pricing is not yet properly regulated. Many workers including civil servants are earning far below the poverty datum line (PDL), which has been pegged at $17 200 for a family of five per month, as of August 2020, according to Zimstat.
“I now prefer using firewood or charcoal for cooking and less of the stove because electricity tariffs are high of late. Gas has also become too expensive for our income level.
“I only recharge power mainly for lighting and other electric appliances other than the stove,” said Mrs Nomathemba Ncube from Emganwini suburb.
According to the Forest Act Chapter 19:05 Section 65, the manufacture of charcoal in Zimbabwe has never been sanctioned and remains banned. Under Statutory Instrument 116 of 2012 of the Forest (Control of Firewood, Timber and Forest Produce) Regulations 2012, charcoal is regarded as fuel wood and anyone trading in this product without a licence can be prosecuted and the equipment used to commit these offences be confiscated by the State.
The uncertainty of supplies and fear of power cuts is also driving domestic demand for firewood and charcoal. Zesa is currently producing a combined average of 1,160MW with an average of 200MW being imported against a national demand of 2 200MW. The huge supply gap leaves consumers to source other options on their own and firewood and charcoal seem to be the easiest and readily available stop-gap measure, especially for cooking.
Energy and Power Development Minister, Soda Zhemu, acknowledged the challenge and noted that rampant firewood and charcoal dealing was having a negative impact on the environment.
“They are destroying the environment,” he said in an interview, adding: “But this is not affecting Bulawayo alone but quite a number of suburbs in cities across the country, especially new ones that have no access to electricity.
“The (connection) capacity is not there because of the reduced fiscal space. The challenge is on our budgetary deficits to afford the connection infrastructure.”
However, the firewood and charcoal business is thriving at the expense of the country’s forests, which are fast depleting with negative implications on the environment at a time when climate change concerns have become a contentious global topic. The Forestry Commission has expressed concern over the trend and fears that massive deforestation mainly on peri-urban areas, will create negative environmental effects in the long term.
“Deforestation is on a massive scale and it’s all illegal as people are poaching firewood and harvesting charcoal. In almost all peri-urban areas, trees have been chopped,” Forestry Commission general manager, Mr Abednico Marufu, said.
“In terms of the rate of deforestation, statistics at hand show that the country is losing 330 000 hectares per annum and this is being exacerbated by power supply, cost gaps and poverty elements.
“The problem is that power supply is weak and often the cost is not affordable to some who see it as expensive.”
Several research bodies have also linked deforestation to demand for fuelwood and construction poles, as well as urban expansion factors. Similarly, environmentalists view deforestation as a major driver of land degradation and closely connect the negative impact with the climate debate. According to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), deforestation leaves the land bare, making it susceptible to various forms of erosion. Also, among the main causes of deforestation is tobacco curing and land clearing for various land uses including agriculture.
Lately, veldfires have also contributed immensely to depletion of forests. While sourcing and selling firewood is permissible upon getting a licence and paying a certain fee, Mr Marufu said a majority of firewood and charcoal vendors were operating illegally.
“We allow communities to harvest firewood in a sustainable manner, for example when granted a licence of when people clear land for agriculture purposes but many who sell firewood are doing so illegally,” said Mr Marufu.
“We have been doing blitzes with the police such as Operation ‘Inkuni uzithethengaphi/Huni wadziwana kupi’. We have also been moving across the country raising awareness.”
Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen. The charcoal business gained more limelight around 2014 when communities in Hwange District’s Cinderella, Madumabisa and Makwika compounds became known for eking out commercial value through cutting down mopane and iron wood trees to produce charcoal in the middle of the densely forested area.
To date, the practice has grown even bigger and when one drives along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls Highway, charcoal and firewood merchants occupy different stations on the roadside, ready to cash in on energy-starved motorists based in urban centres.
The charcoal is kept in 50 kilogramme polythene bags and is stashed in the bushes and sold for about US$5 a bag, negotiable. Firewood is also sold from about ZWL$100 and above depending on quantity required per customer. Environmental advocates are concerned that indigenous tree species are under threat of extinction due to massive deforestation through well-orchestrated charcoal production and illegal firewood syndicates that have sprouted mainly in parts of Matabeleland provinces.
While EMA is not directly involved in forest conservation issues, deforestation has a huge bearing on land degradation and yet those involved in the practice argue that the charcoal business is their only source of livelihood as there is a good ready market for their produce.