A woman cooking with biogas in Santa, Cameroon. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
For decades, Cameroon’s forests have been ruined by charcoal makers but the dawn of biogas is about to change that.
By ARISON TAMFU
Zambo Ebenezer is an outgoing man, full of humour but when it comes to his job, he does not joke. A passionate charcoal maker, Zambo is 42 and notorious for degrading forests. I have come to a forest in Batouri in the East region of Cameroon to obtain first-hand account of his activity. This afternoon, Zambo and four other men are busy in the heart of the equatorial forest making charcoal.
“We dig a pit then put all the wood inside, carefully creating a hole in the middle as we pile the wood. Then, we set fire to the wood through the hole and cover with soil and leave it to burn for two to five days depending on the size and amount of wood. After which we come and remove as charcoal,” says Zambo who is fondly referred to by his friends as ‘black lion’ owing to his years of experience as a charcoal maker.
“I have been doing this for 25 years. I was born to do this” he says as he ignites a newly created gigantic pit replete with wood. Seven trees were felled for the new pit, he explains. I ask him how many trees he has chopped since he started 25 years ago.
“My brother,” he says with a broad smile “I have travelled all over the forests in the East and South regions cutting trees for charcoal. So it is difficult to say exactly how many trees I have cut down. Maybe two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand or millions, I cannot tell but there are so many”.
Charcoal makers like Zambo are spread all over the East region which harbours rich forest reserves that are important for Cameroon and the Congo Basin, the second largest tropical forest region of the world. Zambo says he personally knows more than one hundred charcoal makers in the region. In addition to illegal industrial logging, Cameroon`s forests are at the mercy of charcoal makers: they eliminate, disrupt and degrade the trees indiscriminately.
Dwindling energy supply
Biogas blue flame. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
“We cannot pass a week without supplying charcoal to Douala and Yaounde” Zambo explains as he loads up a truck with charcoal to supply to buyers eagerly waiting for him at Batouri central town. He and his boys have already finished preparing the new pit. As we drive through the crooked roads in the forest, he underlines the indispensability of charcoal.
“Everybody needs charcoal, everybody,” he says categorically. In the capital Yaounde and the economic Headquarters, Douala there is a huge appetite for charcoal.
“Charcoal did not have much value at first. But now everybody is buying charcoal. Business is booming” says Michael Wakam who has been trading in charcoal in Douala for 17 years.
“I rely entirely on charcoal and fuel wood to keep my business going. Gas supply is irregular. This is the third week that we have not been supplied gas. Do you expect me to wait? No of course,” says Ngwang Linda who runs a restaurant at Obili neighbourhood in Yaounde.
Cameroon is a telling example of how deforestation is fueled by ever growing demand for energy products.
“More than 80 per cent of the population living in the cities of Douala and Yaounde are poor people who rely heavily on charcoal wood as a primary source of household energy. It’s worst in rural areas. Approximately 70 per cent of all wood harvested in the forest is used for firewood and charcoal. A woman with a household of six must gather 22.4 kgs of wood daily to meet the demands of her home” says Tabe Joseph, an environmentalist who has researched extensively on charcoal production in Cameroon.
“The gas and electricity supplies in Cameroon are uncertain. People are in dire need of new sources of power and businesses and households that formerly used gas or electricity have now switched over to using charcoal” he explains.
More than a century after the light bulb was invented, most of Cameroon is still in the dark after nightfall. According to World Energy Outlook, the rate of electrification in Cameroon is 55% nationally and only 17 percent in rural areas. The lone energy Supply Company, ENEO, and gas supply utility SCDP (Societe Camerounaise de Depot Petrolier) have failed to satisfy the energy demands of a rapidly growing urban population.
Environmentalists are concerned that the country’s persistent energy crises are detrimental to the already fading forests and the struggle against climate change.
Traders selling charcoal at Douala Central market. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
The charcoal supply for Cameroon’s two biggest cities comes principally from the Congo Basin in East region where we have just arrived with the charcoal-loaded truck in Batouri town. The buyers have been expecting us. As the transaction proceeds, I ask Zambo whether he has ever heard of climate change.
“No, never. What is that?” He answers, yet he is experiencing the adverse effects of climate change.
“My wife does not know when to plant since rains come and go at any time and because of that we have food crisis. I do not know anything about what you asked me (climate change) but I know that the climate is changing” Zambo says. He unconsciously constitutes the cause of the impact.
“Forests cover 30% of the world’s land surface and are also one of the world’s best methods of storing carbon, absorbing 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year and storing billions more. Forests are absolutely important for mitigating the impact of climate change and saving the world. So, charcoal makers are promoting devastating consequences of global warming through the destruction of trees and the effect is turning back on them” says Tabe.
According to him, Cameroon is already experiencing the adverse impact of climate change with irregular rainfall leading to destructive floods and encroaching deserts in the North Region due to unsustainable deforestation.
“And if the felling of trees continues unchecked more trees will die and you can imagine what impact that will have for the future, it will be disastrous” he says.
But it does not have to come to that, says Boma Mohammed Chi who believes passionately that renewable energy especially biogas is a panacea to the charcoal-making-disease and other energy deficiencies. Biogas is a type of biofuel that is naturally produced from the decomposition of organic waste.
Waste to wealth
Biogas lamp. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
One afternoon in 2007, Boma visited a German friend in Karlsruhe and was struck by what he saw: households were recycling organic waste to cook and generate electricity.
“I realized energy was free,” he says.
“I thought of the free and unlimited waste in my country, Cameroon, how this was polluting the environment and especially how millions were destroying forests for firewood and just how waste could be turned into wealth,” he adds.
At that defining moment, Boma fell in love with renewable energy and devoted the rest of his time in Europe to learn about biogas.
Three years later, he returned to Cameroon and with imagination and confidence, he founded Royal Renewable Energy Cameroon (RRECAM) whose prime objective was to introduce biogas in Cameroon.
“When I arrived here people still depended very much on charcoal for cooking and when I told them that, their poo and other waste could be used to cook and generate electricity they laughed at me and said they wanted to see before they believe,” he says.
Targeting primarily rural communities, Boma began promoting biogas not only as domestic energy to replace charcoal and provide electricity but also as new source of income or cost reduction source. Today he has succeeded to install biodigesters in households, hospitals and schools. A biodigester is a machine designed to capture methane gas released by decomposing material.
“Fighting rural poverty is our priority” says Boma.
Boma Mohammed poses in front of a biogas plant under construction. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
In MaiBono in Adamawa region, Alhadji Nana, a dairy farmer and a respected community figure is all smiles. Last year 2017, he heard of biogas and invited Boma to install the device in his community and that decision ushered in a new beginning in his life and community.
“Things have changed here since the arrival of biogas. Instead of fetching firewood in the forests early morning and late in the evening, children now go to school on time because we don’t need wood to cook,” says Nana adding that illnesses that emanated from smoke as a result of firewood-cooked-food are now something of the past.
“We feel healthy now. And the best part is, our maize yields have increased since we started using organic compost to fertilize the fields and we are still making money by selling any leftover compost to other farmers. Also, we now save money that we used to buy bottled gas with and it’s helping some of our women to start small businesses,” he says.
“But come to think of it, who could have imagined that the cow dung, excrement and other sewage could be used for electricity, fertilizer, cooking? This is interesting” says Nana wearing a countenance of bewilderment and pleasure.
Perhaps more interesting is the story of Jean Ze Ndongo. Three years ago, I met Ndongo felling trees for charcoal in Batouri. An ardent charcoal maker, Ndongo told me, God created him to produce charcoal and that he will die a charcoal maker. But one incident changed him.
One day in November 2015, a group of engineers came and installed the first biogas unit in his village. It elicited awe and curiosity among the villagers. Ndongo abandoned his chores that day for a glimpse of the biogas unit. He found it fascinating that biogas burnt with a blue flame, was startled at how quickly food cooked over the flame, and was thrilled at how clean and smoke-free the kitchen and house were. He realized that he could make more money from biogas, generate electricity and fundamentally, the wife will spend less time cooking. At that moment, Ndongo had seen enough to be convinced and immediately converted from a charcoal maker to a proud owner of biogas.
“It was the wisest decisions I have ever taken. The last time you were here, charcoal was all over the compound, now you see pigs, fowls and the rest” says Ndongo parading to me his new found wealth.
“I no longer spend countless hours in the forest in search of charcoal. We also have electricity here free of charge. I have started business from the money I save. This is my own gift from mother nature” he says laughing uncontrollably.
Energy of the future?
Biomas unit under construction. PHOTO By ARISON TAMFU
Besides its significance in alleviating poverty and sustaining development in rural communities, there is another compelling reason to develop biogas: it represents one of the most important weapons in the fight against climate change. Cooking with biogas cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say. As interest in carbon-neutral and renewable energy grows, more and more people are looking to sustainable energy sources, such as biogas. However, greater research and investment into biogas producing technologies is still required.
“Biogas and other renewable energy sources are real tools for sustainable development,” says Boma.
“Our environment is clean, standards of living are improving and most importantly our forests are now safe thanks to biogas” he adds.
Forests safe? Yes-but-not-entirely, not for Zambo. For Zambo, charcoal business is more than felling trees, it is a way of life, a livelihood and a passion. He is adamant and cannot for any reason abandon his charcoal trade.
“It is my life. That is where I feed myself, children and my wife” Zambo tells emphatically as he bids me farewell.
He will repent one day just like Ndongo, I reflect as I board a bus for Yaounde, when he learns about clean and sustainable energy that will not only increase his standard of living but will save his life and billions of people the world over.
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