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Monday, October 18, 2021

New energy for a new people

The energy situation of the country leaves much to be desired. Electric energy is neither accessible nor affordable for most Gambians. The Gambia is blessed with immense renewable energy resources. Unfortunately, the penetration level of those modern energy sources, such as solar and wind power is unimpressive. This is blamed on two main factors: Low awareness amongst the people and high start-up cost involved. There are communities that have ventured in renewable energy. Batokunku village, for instance, is enjoying buoyancy in energy supply, thanks to its wind power infrastructure which, according to reliable sources, sells surplus energy to Nawec. But let’s shelve the renewable discourse for another time. 


The point to make now is that the inadequate supply of modern energy makes fuelwood, which includes charcoal and firewood, the natural alternative source of energy for most Gambian households. Relatively cheap and accessible, fuelwood is estimated to provide 80 percent of the country’s energy and more than 95 percent of household energy.


Today, the choice between feeding a hungry stomach and preserving the natural resources has never been more difficult to make. But The Gambia cannot take excuses. It’s clear that the heavy dependence on charcoal encourages deforestation. Granted, because of the ban on charcoal production in the country, a large chunk of charcoal sold in town comes from Casamance and Guinea Bissau. But the relationship our environment shares with, say, Casamance, is such that Gambia’s forests, and by extension lives and livelihoods in Gambia, will not be spared by spillover effects of any forest degradation in Casamance. 


Not just the cutting of trees is the concern here. The burning of charcoal in homes and industries is inimical to the environment. Charcoal produces hydrocarbons that pollute the air, bringing with it an assortment of risks to biodiversity. Climate change is a reality, and developing countries like The Gambia are likely to bear the brunt, for they have low adaptive capacities and capabilities. This calls for innovation in alternative sources of energy which are eco friendly and requires low technology. 


For long, policies and legislations that have been put in place as well as the rhetoric that has been constant, have failed to either provide the people with alternatives or push them to creating alternatives. But new grounds have now been broken. For instance, GreenTech, an environmental solutions private company is producing briquettes made from peanut shells. The briquettes are used in specifically designed improved cooking stoves. The products are available for a wide variety of consumers, ranging from domestic to industry. It has been tested and proven that unlike charcoal and firewood, the briquette produces insignificant amount of smoke. A bag of briquette costs D140, compared to D175 for charcoal. A bag of briquette last longer than a bag of charcoal and lesser amount of time is spent in cooking with briquette than with charcoal. The mere turning of groundnut shells into briquettes potentially adds value to groundnut as the country’s main export crop.  


Today, the innovation has aroused wide interest in biomass. Consumers are embracing the products at a gradual pace and not-for profit organisations and academic institutions could be seen making further exploration into biomass. Besides, jobs are created in a highly job-stressed market, incomes are being earned for people who had no hope, and foreign exchange and revenue are being generated for the government. This is done at virtually no cost to the environment. 


In the horizon in The Gambia is the production of biochar, a solid material obtained from carbonisation of biomass. This will be a relatively new phenomenon in the country. Pioneering it is Agua Inc, a US-based international water treatment technology company that has just started operations in Gambia. Biochar, like briquettes, is a perfect substitute for charcoal.


In fact, some climate change negotiators would argue that Africa, too, needs energy to develop her economies. Which is true. But the question is: What type of energy? The answer could lead us to new opportunities. When you can capture heat from burning agricultural waste to generate electricity – electrochar, or exploit sun and wind resources to create energy, what for do you need in your house a Nawec that you pay so much for so little in return? When you can turn a wide variety of waste into biomass or biochar, why do you have to destroy the forest cover to make charcoal? 


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