Charcoal: Still a multimillion dollar industry

A worker on a charcoal farm, burning wood


The booming charcoal industry, which is an innovative by-product of the clearance of invading bushes - continues to rise amidst reports of unfair labour practices and weekly veld fires.
The industry has grown from exporting 50 000 to 60 000 tonnes per year in 2004 and is currently exporting 140 000 tonnes a year, 70% of which is exported to the European countries, while 30% of the exports are reserved for the South African market.
This was revealed by the Namibia Charcoal Producers Association, Frans Holkzkampf in an interview with The Villager this week.
The NCPA, which is affiliated to the NAU, acts as the producers’ mouthpiece.
Holkzkampf confirmed that while the industry, which has successfully moved away from being a ‘whites only’ affair, has proven to be a viable alternative for poverty alleviation and employment creation. It is now dogged by staff shortages and weekly veld fires.
Said Holkzkampf, “The demand is good especially in Europe but most of us are not running at full capacity because we just can’t get enough local workers. Maybe the Government is taking good care of the locals and they don’t need jobs, so some producers have now resorted to employing people from other countries and some from the Osire refugee camp.”
But Government subsidies – if any – may not be the only cause of apathy from potential employees.
Last year, in their report titled Charcoal: Namibia’s Black Gold, researchers Ute Dieckmann and Theodore Muduva from the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) maintained that Namibia’s coal industry is one of the least regulated industries in the country.
This status paves way for unfair labour practices as charcoal workers, burners and cutters continue to be treated as subcontractors without basic benefits like social security or medical aid.
“Where such harvesters are indeed treated as independent contractors and not as employees, the provisions of the Labour Act in respect to employees and the duties of employers do not apply because the Act does not contain provisions relating to contractors. Thus, the producers circumvent the provisions of the Act,” the researchers stated.
 Holkzkampf confirmed that such practices have happened in the past, but the situation has since changed due to the tripartite negotiations between the Government, the NCPA and the Namibian Farm Workers Union (NAFWU). The NCPA agreed that the producer–worker relationship had to be formalised as an employer–employee relationship under the Labour Act, provided that a collective agreement was reached.
“We are expecting this collective agreement to reach a conclusive stage by later this year,” Holkzkampf told The Villager.
The report by the LAC estimated that there were about 4 800 charcoal workers in the country at the time of the study.
Another factor threatening the prosperity of the market is the rate at which veld fires are occurring as a result of the charcoal productions.  The Villager has learnt that the occurrence of such fires has become a daily phenomenon.  Holzkampf confirmed that veld fires have become a problem for both the Government and the NCPA as the custodians of the industry.
He revealed that his association gets reports of 5 – 7 veld fires a week. “We get weekly reports of veld fires. There are controlled fires which are created by farmers because they want to burn one of their camps for agricultural reasons. We are not counting those. I am talking about fires that are started during the coal production process but then get out of control,” he said.
Many of these fires happen at coal producing farms that belong to producers who are non members of the NCPA, according to Holzkampf. “We train our members and many of these uncontrolled fires happen because some people (who are non members) are not well informed,” he maintained. He further added that this veld fire situation can become a big headache for the industry when neighbouring farmers start suing each other for damages.  
The charcoal industry is a fairly new one in Namibia having seen considerable growth only since 2000. The industry was said to be worth around N$75–100m in 2004 and continues to grow. There are currently 280 registered charcoal producers, but according to the NCPA, there are a total of over 600 producers in the country.
The main markets for Namibian charcoal are for the leisure industry in Europe and South Africa, but there is also a large demand from silicon smelters in South Africa. The value of charcoal exports to the European Union market increased from about N$27m in 2007, to N$59m in 2008.
Charcoal production, according to the LAC report by Dieckmann and Muduva, is hailed as a method of combating bush encroachment and thus, of increasing the carrying capacity for livestock on (commercial) farms. “It is also celebrated for its potential to create job opportunities for the unskilled and semi-skilled labour force in particular, hence, to reduce rural poverty,” the report further reads.
Furthermore, it offers farmers an opportunity to diversify their livelihood strategies. It is sometimes said to be a business in which quick money can be made. This would offer emerging farmers the potential to acquire capital for investing in livestock in order to establish themselves in the agricultural industry.
A number of different aspects have been the subject of investigation in other studies. These aspects include the economic potential of charcoal production for Namibia and its potential to fight invader bush. However, such studies remain at large on a macro level. Detailed research both on the environmental impact and on the situation of the labourers within the charcoal business have been lacking to date.
The districts of Grootfontein and Otjiwarongo in the Otjozondjupa Region, Outjo in the Kunene Region and Tsumeb in the Oshikoto Region are said to be the main areas of charcoal production in the country while some farmers in the Gobabis District of the Omaheke Region got on the charcoal bandwagon as well.
Like any industry the charcoal sector is also hampered by various factors. One such factor is the fluctuation of the market.
As charcoal is mainly used in the leisure industry, the European market is highly dependent on weather. European companies buy charcoal and stockpile it mainly from December to April.
“If the weather is good, they buy again soon; with bad weather, they wait until the next season to purchase. The South African market shows more or less the same tendency,” the research revealed.  The marketing and production seasons of the charcoal are also not synchronic.