October 1, 2022

By Hassan Ibrahim Conteh

Most people in Sierra Leone especially from the provinces produce charcoal to sell in cities and bigger towns. Charcoal is produced in larger quantities in Africa and some parts of the world to serve an ever-growing population.  It is used in homes on stoves for cooking purposes in most cases when wood is not available. The charcoal is made out of wood or tree logs which are thoroughly heated with fire and then converted to a black carbon substance.  To prepare it, some amount of wood is buried in a pit or tunnel with soil and grass poured over some chunk of sticks.

The other way of burning charcoal is called ‘bokbok’ by some Sierra Leoneans, in which sticks are used as fence with one of the sticks projected in the middle.

The wood burners also use the ‘trailer approach’ which requires the use of longer and bigger sticks spread against each other with soil and grass applied above.

”We often lie closer to the oven to observe the process but if sleep go past you, the whole pit will burn down completely. And such a situation causes serious loss to us,” Kene Kamara, a charcoal expert producer, informed.

When the wood in the pit get almost burnt, the rising smoke ceases and fades out gradually, or sometimes they notice that through the heap of the soil, which keeps going down. By noticing such signs, the ‘wood setters’ would understand that the wood set had been converted to charcoal.

Charcoal production leads to the rapid cutting down of trees, making the deforested areas vulnerable which enables animals to move away to other environments.

“The practice has made many animals to leave for other places. Like my village, it is hard to see animals there as compared to those days,” a descendant of Bombalili District shared his experience with Nightwatch press.

Charcoal burning also results to unexpected bush fires and its toxic smoke rising upwards may as well have the potential to destroy the ozone layer.

The flames emanating from burning the coal in pits may also drive away animals and destroy microorganisms useful to soil fertility. The ozone layer is very important for human existence on Earth, as it absorbs most of the Sun’s rays or ultraviolent radiation. Most of the woodland areas in some parts of Sierra Leone like Taima in Moyamba District and other villages in Port Loko District are notorious places for charcoal production.

However, studies have proven that the carbon produced from charcoal has many direct benefits as well. It greatly increases soil fertility through its capacity to retain water and nutrients, according to Sciencedirect.com. Its carbon also has many other benefits especially on sandy soil, but it’s good to minimise charcoal burning to avoid unforeseen environmental disasters.  Environmentalists have emphasised on the need to encourage people to plant more tress to replace the burnt ones.

Meanwhile, considering the energy and physicality involved in producing charcoal, the business is actively dominated by men in Sierra Leone, with women taking a passive role.

Women would have to hire other men in the village especially the widows who are left with no option but to pay for services like cutting down the trees, trimming the palm leaves, setting out fire onto the woods, watching over the burning process, digging pits or tunnels and packaging the produce.  With the use of bags, palms leaves are neatly covered, a process which requires a special skill referred to by the locals at Taima as “pam.”

”When my husband died, I had to nicely talk to the men and pay them to help me to cut the sticks for me and set them alight. But with all that, they’d turn down your offer repeatedly. As women, we’re going through a lot in this trade,” complained Sawo, a charcoal producer and seller from Taima.  The torments of Forestry guys

Transporting bags of charcoal produce loaded on vehicles to the cities and other towns poses so many challenges for the dealers. Often at times, charcoal dealers would have to pay for clearance to forestry officers attached at various checkpoints across the country.

”From Taima to Freetown, we pay Le7,000 to forestry for each bag. Sometimes they ask us to offload the lorry. In such cases, we the luggage owners would ask each of us to contribute some money and give them to allow us to pass easily,” Sawo complained.  These traders are often harassed than other businesspeople dealing with other goods.

”The timber dealers and us the charcoal traders are mostly harassed at checkpoints,” she continued. Their frustration is seriously worsened when, sometimes, the officers demanded them to pay double price for a bag of charcoal than the normal required cost.  The officers, Sawo says, don’t have any fixed price for a bag of charcoal product loaded on lorries to be sold in the capital, Freetown. She complained that they can charge any amount, a frustrating situation which literally bogged them down the mud, often with no choice but to compromise.

Based on Nightwtach’s investigation, there was seemingly little effort done by the country’s forestry department to encourage producers of charcoal products to replant trees on bare lands where woods had earlier been systematically chopped.

Officers who tread to those places reportedly embark on personal motives, which mean much more discomfort for the local producers of charcoal. The village charcoal producers alleged that forestry officers occasionally go to their villages demanding money from them on the pretext of enforcing a countrywide ban on tree logging.

“When we give them money, they go away but after some time, you see them back,” uttered a young girl from the back. The hit-go and-come tactic employed by the officers and the compromise shown by the locals have so thoroughly eroded trust and fear that folks aren’t afraid of any possible arrest by forestry regulators.

“Maybe, you too interviewing us, you are from forestry,” a woman expressed doubt. “Even if he is one of them, I will continue to talk. I won’t be scared because otherwise they wouldn’t have gone to our village collecting money from us,” Sawo said with confidence.

Kene, who trades and produces charcoal from Taima, responded with a slow pitch sound from the throat, looking hesitantly. “We get the woods from our farms but not from the forestry [areas], but from the farms we made,” he emphasised.Despite several efforts made, officers at the Ministry of Forestry could not be reached to clarify such issues at the time.

Low profits count

The running cost involved in producing and selling the charcoal in the market and the compliance charges paid along the way have a bearing on the little profit the dealers get from the sales. Other charcoal traders often grumble over low profits incurred from doing such a business. They believe the buyers who sell to end users profit more than they do. This is usually because they determine the price in the market, they observed. “We often pay for the ground where the charcoals are packed. And what is more painful is when others auction theirs, but I will never auction mine,” complained another woman.

Sawo said she started the charcoal business with just Le300,000, after the demise of her husband who left her with four children. Although the challenges are many when taking such a risk, she however, disclosed that the business has helped her a lot. She told Nightwatch that if she hadn’t engaged in the charcoal trade, she wouldn’t have raised up her kids, given that she is a widow. “The constraints are too much for us but if you abandon it [charcoal trade] which business will you do next?” she asked, “considering the little capital I have.”

But she seemed very willing to abandon the business if she was assisted with appreciable amount of money to start another business. “If I am given like Le4 million or so, I will do another business instead,” she wished. When these poor traders bring abundant bags of charcoal to be sold in Freetown, they sometimes spend a week or two before they could return home.

Being that they are strangers, Kene said, they would have to buy everything including food to sustain their lives and all those costs account for their low profit after sales. They sleep in crowed zinc houses, with others unbearably lying on the floor on local thatched mats. Sawo and others avoid sleeping in the zinc houses so as to watch over their goods.