Last week I bought some charcoal made from bamboo and gave to it to our maid to try it. After about an hour I enquired about the maid’s assessment. What I got were negative remarks. She said it was producing a strong odour and that it quickly turned to ashes.
I then asked her to prepare a heater for me, using the bamboo charcoal. This was done and I spent upwards of one hour in front of the heater warming myself. I am not good at smelling things and I thought my failure to detect the odour reported earlier was due to that problem. But the people I was with likewise did not detect the odour. Besides, I retired to bed before the charcoal was all used up.
Agreed, bamboo charcoal cannot perform to the same level as that produced from tsanya (Colophospermum mopane). While the former is a fast growing and soft plant, the latter is slow growing hardwood that produces high quality charcoal. Tsanya, like other hardwoods, takes forever to mature, which is why its wood gets highly compacted and becomes good material for charcoal.
The only problem is that those who cut down tsanya and similar indigenous hardwood trees to convert the logs therefrom to charcoal do not plant any trees to replace the ones they have felled. If you have even what you think is a great number of items and you keep subtracting from the original lot, without adding anything to it, you will surely hit zero someday. The only way to prevent depleting the lot is to introduce addition transactions. It is simple logic to appreciate that if what is added equals what is subtracted, the net effect will be zero. If what is added exceeds what is subtracted the lot will grow but if what is subtracted exceed what is added it will shrink. Traditional charcoal production fits the latter model, nay it is worse because zero trees are added to the forests by the charcoal producers.
People can say what they want to say but traditional charcoal production is simply not sustainable. “What will the people use to cook?” is a question I encounter very often. Many people convince themselves that they have a clever argument against the laws forbidding sale and use of traditional charcoal. If people do not use charcoal, they will have no alternative domestic fuel. Therefore, the argument continues, the users of traditional charcoal should be left alone to use the product as they wish.
The truth of matter is that if we continue to use traditional charcoal we are simply postponing the problem of having no alternative domestic fuel. Producing charcoal in the traditional way will not take us very far. In a matter of years, perhaps ten or fifteen, this country will not have any trees from which charcoal can be made. A plethora of other environmental problems will have resulted from the depletion of forests. People will still need alternative fuel for cooking and for other domestic chores.
We do, in fact, have potential alternative domestic fuel: a mix of legally produced charcoal, gas and electricity. What I referred to in the opening paragraph of this this article is legally produced charcoal. I have used the term “traditional charcoal” to distinguish it from that which is legally produced. It is legally produced in the sense that the producers use the trees they have planted and engage in ongoing planting of trees to replace the ones they use for charcoal production. This is a sustainable way of producing charcoal.
At K12 000 per 50kg bag, I do not think that legally produced charcoal is significantly more expensive than traditional charcoal. The volumes produced now may be low but as more people enter the business, the volumes will certainly shoot exponentially.
I am not naïve; I am aware that the majority of those who have a negative attitude towards the alternative energy sources currently available will continue to have such an attitude. They would still prefer tsanya charcoal to bamboo charcoal, for example. They will say everything good about the former and everything negative about the latter. I have experienced it in my home already.
The point I want to make is that all the positives about traditional charcoal cannot make it the best alternative. As I grew up at Nkhoma Mission, it used to be popular among boys to steal fruit from white people’s orchards. We thought stolen mangoes or guavas tasted better than the ones we got from our parents but that did not make them legitimate. Neither is traditional charcoal legitimate, attractive though it may be.