Civil-society action is reshaping the illicit charcoal trade in northern Uganda

Charcoal production and trade is a major industry in Uganda, with the fuel providing an affordable source of energy in a context where rapid population growth and urbanization ensures that demand is constantly rising. In northern Uganda – the main region for production in the country on account of the quality of the charcoal produced there – a combination of civil-society advocacy may be having an impact on the illicit charcoal trade. But how does this illicit market work, and how are those involved adapting to the rise of community and state resistance to their trade?

Charcoal in Uganda

Charcoal is an important energy source for many of Uganda’s estimated 45 million people.1 According to national statistics for 2016–2017, 30% of households rely on charcoal for cooking and 64% rely on firewood,2 although other estimates place the proportion of charcoal use even higher.3 Consumption is highest in urban areas such as in Kampala.4 For many households, charcoal is the only viable source of energy in communities where electrification is not widespread, and acquiring and maintaining electric stoves may be prohibitively expensive. Factories in Kampala, Jinja and Wakiso also generate large-scale demand for charcoal. Ugandan-produced charcoal is also illegally exported to Kenya, where a complete ban on charcoal production was issued in February 2019.5

The production and trade of charcoal is therefore a lucrative business and a large source of employment. However, charcoal production is also a major contributor to forest degradation in Uganda, while charcoal burning emits some amount of greenhouse gases. Most of the charcoal and firewood sold and used in Uganda also come from virgin forests (i.e. forests which have grown for many years without human disturbance and are therefore ecologically diverse and unique). The United Nations Development Programme estimates that 1.8% of forest land in Uganda is being lost annually to charcoal and timber production, representing some 80 000 hectares destroyed every year.6

Northern Uganda dominates the charcoal-production market because dealers seek out the high-quality charcoal produced in this region. The districts of Gulu, Amuru, Pader, Agago and Nwoya are well known for producing the best-quality charcoal using shea nut trees and Aphelia (both endangered tree species), which has made demand for illicitly produced charcoal from this region especially resilient.7

In the fight against charcoal production and the associated deforestation, regional and national governments in East Africa have at several points sought to ban charcoal production and trading. However, such bans have often had unforeseen consequences, such as driving up prices of charcoal for consumers (who often have no other viable energy alternatives) and driving corruption in charcoal-production areas. Kenya’s charcoal bans in 2018 and 2019 have been criticized on both these counts.8

Government response in northern Uganda

Following the dire consequences of extensive charcoal production in the region, local government leaders in northern Uganda banned commercial charcoal production in the key districts named above in February 2018. The ban halted the issuance of forest production and harvesting licenses, which charcoal producers are required to have in order to trade legally.

Following the ban, the chairman of the local government of Gulu District, in partnership with the military and police, embarked on night operations to seize any truck carrying charcoal in the entire region. The sale of the charcoal seized from illicit shipments and fines levied on trucks carrying illicit shipments between September 2018 and November 2019 generated 600 million Ugandan shillings (US$160 326) for the Gulu District treasury alone.9 Chairpersons in neighbouring districts soon followed suit.

The process of charcoal production: a truck carries charcoal on the Kampala to Jinja highway, March 2020; a labourer goes to transport wood felled for charcoal production in Paibona Parish, Gulu district, February 2020; and bags of charcoal wait ready for transportation in Paibona village in Gulu district, February 2020.

The process of charcoal production: a truck carries charcoal on the Kampala to Jinja highway, March 2020; a labourer goes to transport wood felled for charcoal production in Paibona Parish, Gulu district, February 2020; and bags of charcoal wait ready for transportation in Paibona village in Gulu district, February 2020.

© Julius Kaka

Since June 2018, a local pressure group called Our Trees, We Need Answers (comprising local journalists, researchers and law-enforcement officers) has been campaigning against illegal deforestation. The group has also been involved in helping police (specifically, the police Environment Protection Unit) by providing information on illicit production and sale of charcoal. They have undertaken sensitization programmes on the dangers of large-scale, commercial charcoal burning in factories and have encouraged community members to engage in other means of income generation. They have also campaigned on land rights and appropriate land uses for commercial purposes, such as encouraging the lease of land for environmentally friendly ventures and agroforestry.

Joint efforts with the campaign group and local leaders from Gulu, Amuru, Nwoya, Agago, Pader and Omoro districts have resulted in an agreed framework contained in the 2019 Acholi Sustainable Charcoal Production and Marketing Bill.10 The policy framework seeks to establish functional local authority committees and standards to monitor environmentally friendly charcoal production. They have also named and shamed powerful political actors involved in the illicit charcoal trade.11

Collectively, the impact of Our Trees, We Need Answers advocacy and local government efforts may have brought about a significant reduction in the production and sale of charcoal in northern Uganda. In interviews conducted in February 2020, a local official and the leader of the advocacy group both confirmed that the number of truckloads of charcoal exported from the districts each day have, in recent months, significantly reduced.12 While it is difficult to obtain data that confirms this, such a reduction may be a cause for celebration. In recent fieldwork, the GI-TOC has sought to investigate the prevailing dynamics of the illicit charcoal market and the impact of recent government and civil-society initiatives.

The illicit charcoal market adjusts to new conditions

In the face of increased public campaigning and govern­ment scrutiny, there is evidence that those in the charcoal market have shifted their strategies of production and transportation. While there has been a reduction in mass felling of trees for charcoal, production has not entirely ceased.

Rather, production appears to have become smaller scale, more fragmented and more secretive. Charcoal dealers have reportedly begun to strike agreements directly with local landowners, paying them to produce charcoal in smaller quantities (20 to 50 bags), rather than engaging in the industrial-scale production previously seen. The charcoal is then sent to designated stores in towns, from where it is transported to markets in Kampala or Busia. This is seen as a more secure way of evading environmental regulations as it keeps the knowledge of the operation limited to a few members of the local community, who are generally not suspected of being involved in commercial charcoal production.

Because of local community opposition to commercial charcoal production, some community members engage with charcoal dealers secretly, without involving neighbours or even community leaders, although there have also been reports of dealers taking advantage of the poor levels of literacy among the landowners to manipulate them into signing for the sale of land itself, rather than just the trees, for charcoal production.13 Some factory owners also station their agents in the region to negotiate with land owners, who eventually accept to sell their trees in exchange for money or gifts, such as payment of school fees for their children.14

The means of distribution are changing as well as the means of production. In the past, charcoal was transported in bulk directly from production sites, but now motorbikes are used to transport smaller loads to collection points and storage units.15 Powerful charcoal dealers either pay off or engage in agreements with smaller brokers in town to use their stores as warehouses. Instead of going deep in the villages to source charcoal as before, these dealers collect their product from these town-based warehouses, thereby avoiding any connection with the source of production. According to a community leader in Palaro sub-county, Gulu District, businessmen from Mbale, Busia, Busoaga, Bugwere, central Uganda, Kampala, Wakiso, as well as businessmen from as far away as Kenya (Busia and Bungoma) are involved in the charcoal market.16

As legal routes of charcoal production have been closed off, corruption has flourished, enabling dealers to obtain documents that legitimize illicit production. Some forestry officers at the sub-county level have taken bribes to issue forest production and harvesting licences, and Environmental Impact Assessment certificates (which certify that developers or individuals have fulfilled the conditions of the Environmental Act and Forest and Tree Planting Act) without the required clearance from their superiors.17

The need to secure protection against law-enforcement agencies, facilitate trade and obtain safe passage has also driven corruption among other local civil servants.18 Army officers in the region have been involved directly in production and sale and provided safe passage for charcoal to move out to market destinations.19 Several politicians and local community leaders and a district chairperson have also been involved in the trade, either as traders or through receiving bribes to grant charcoal dealers safe passage.20 Charcoal dealers and transporters bribe their way through checkpoints on major highways to other regional markets, although they also use various minor roads to evade law-enforcement officers.

There are several major routes by which charcoal is transported, which often pass through major selling points (Figure 1). (The border town of Busia, for example, is both an important market in its own right and a waypoint for charcoal being transported to Kenya.)

A more volatile landscape?

Charcoal production in northern Uganda, and indeed the entire country, increased after the Kenyan government banned production of charcoal in February 2019, after a previous three-month ban imposed in May 2018 proved ineffective. Reporting from Kenya suggests that Kenyan charcoal dealers flocked to Uganda after the imposition of the ban as an alternative source of charcoal. 21

As demand continues to rise and large-scale production of charcoal is curtailed, prices of charcoal have risen across Uganda to record highs. In Gulu Nwoya and Agago districts, charcoal prices have increased from between USh25 000 and USh35 000 per bag (US$7.28–10.19) in 2015 to between USh35 000 and USh45 000 (US$9.42– 12.12) in 2020.22 However, these prices often double or triple in Kampala, Entebbe, Busia and Rwanda.23

Among district leaders and civil society, there are contrasting views on the decline of the commercial charcoal trade. While some view it as a complete victory, others worry that it may have driven illicit logging in precious tree species (such as Aphelia) in the region.

While charcoal production (and the associated deforesta­tion) may have declined, the new environment – consisting of bribery, forgery, collusion with the army, government officials and police, and in which community members may be denied rights to their own land – poses a challenging set of circumstances. Strategies that seek to continue the fight against the illicit charcoal trade must take these new dynamics into account. Initiatives such as Our Trees, We Need Answers may provide a vital common cause for local civil society, but are limited by a lack of resources. In a region that has just risen from the ashes of war, the challenges of poverty continue to push people towards illicit ventures.


  1. Estimate based on elaboration of the latest United Nations data by Worldometer, 

  2. Uganda Bureau of Statistics, National Household Survey 2016/2017,; David Lumu, 90% of households use firewood, charcoal for cooking, The New Vision, 27 September 2017,

  3. Adam Branch and Giuliano Martiniello, Charcoal power: The political violence of non-fossil fuel in Uganda, Geoforum, 97, 2018, 242–252. 

  4. Paul G Munro and Anne Bartlett, Energy bricolage in Northern Uganda: Rethinking energy geographies in Sub-Saharan Africa, Energy Research & Social Science, 55, 2019, 71–81. 

  5. The East African, Charcoal traders go to Uganda after Kenya ban, 2 May 2019,

  6. Peter Labeja, Acholi Region Draft Charcoal Policy, Uganda Radio Network, 20 February 2019,; Ivan Tolit, Charcoal Burning is Another ‘War’ in Northern Uganda, 10 June 2019, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Interview with environmental activist and member of Our Trees, We Need Answers, by phone, 7 February 2020. 

  7. Interview with environmental activist, 12 February 2020, by phone. 

  8. Michael Chepkwony, Interim report links blatant destruction of forests to graft, The Standard, 28 March 2018,; Mohamed Mahmud, Kenya’s ban on charcoal production affects millions, TRT World, 15 July 2018,; Moina Spoona, Banning charcoal isn’t the way to go. Kenya should make it sustainable, The Conversation, 16 May 2018,

  9. URN, Gulu district fetches Shs 600m from illicit charcoal trade, The Observer, 21 May 2019,, conversion given at inter-bank rate for 1 November 2019, via

  10. Peter Labeja, Uganda Radio Network, Acholi Region Draft Charcoal Policy, 20, February 2019.

  11. Interview with environmental activist and member of Our Trees, We Need Answers, by phone, on 7 February 2020. 

  12. Interview with District Forestry official, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  13. Interview with Local Council One leader, Paibona, Awach Gulu District, 19 February 2020; interview with Local Council One leader, Palaro, Gulu District, 20 February 2020. 

  14. Interview with a community leader, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  15. Researcher’s conclusions based on field notes between 17 and 20 February, 2020; interview with local council one leader, Paibona, Awach Gulu District, 19 February 2020; interview with local council one leader, Palaro, Gulu District, 20 February 2020. 

  16. Interview with a community leader, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  17. Daily Monitor, Why illegal logging, charcoal burning persists in the north, 3 November 2019,–charcoal-burning-persist-in-the-north/688342-5334008-15nl2s0z/index.html; interview with District Forestry official, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  18. Interview with a District Forestry official, Nwoya District, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  19. Interview with an environmental activist, member of Our Trees, We Need Answers, 13 February 2020, by phone; interview with a Uganda Radio Network journalist, 13 February 2020, by phone. 

  20. Interview with an environmental activist, 12 February 2020, by phone. 

  21. The East African, Charcoal traders go to Uganda after Kenya ban, 2 May 2019,

  22. Interview with a National Environment Management Authority field officer, Gulu District, 10 February 2020. A bag of charcoal from this sub-region weighs between 50 and 80 kilograms. Conversions given at inter-bank rate for 31 December 2015 and Feb 1 2020 to correspond to the collection of the original price data, via

  23. Interview with a charcoal dealer, Mbale, 12 February 2020.