Cross-border charcoal trade booms in Busia

Situation likened to Chepkube coffee smuggling of the mid -1970s which turned Kenyans into millionaires

Musa Radoli

For residents of Sofia and Marachi areas along Kenya-Uganda border, life is no longer the same  after invasion by traders scrambling for a share of smuggled charcoal.

The area has become one of the most sought-after open-air markets and smugglers are making a kill from the illegal trade which has seen truckloads of the “black gold” brought in from the Uganda side.

Massive smuggling of charcoal from Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Burundi into Kenya has erupted into a highly lucrative business at the border.

These countries still have massive acreages of virgin forests to be harvested, especially DRC, despite its long distance from Kenya-Uganda border. The DRC, a country located in Central Africa borders Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east.

According to Busia County Chamber of Commerce and Industry official Justus Abuongo a number of areas in Busia town such as Sofia and Marachi have been transformed into massive smuggled charcoal collection centres.

“This is a completely new phenomenon that these areas are experiencing because previously charcoal used to come from Uganda in small quantities for local consumption to augment others from Kenyan sources but today the story is different,” he said.

Abuongo said trailers, lorries and pick-up trucks from all corners of the country are flooding to these towns to purchase the commodity in large quantities for onward transportation to other towns where the demand is high. He said for the local residents charcoal prices have more than doubled in the last six months from Sh650 to Sh2,100 per bag.

“However, for those coming to buy it from other parts of the country, this is cheap because they sell it at between Sh2,500 and Sh3,500 depending on the prevailing market demand and the area it is taken to,” he said.

He said the charcoal smuggling phenomenon is almost similar to that of coffee that took the Kenya – Uganda border towns by storm in the mid to late 1970s. The four-year period, 1976 through to 1979, was christened the “Chepkube Coffee Boom” era, which made many Kenyans millionaires overnight from trading in the Uganda “black gold”.

Charcoal transactions are widespread along the common border starting from Lwakhakha and Chepkube in the north all the way through Malaba, Busia border towns to Sio Port and Port Victoria towns in the south on Lake Victoria.

Heavy duty trucks, lorries and pick-ups are used to ferry in the “black gold” over long distances through Uganda where they are deposited at strategically located  depots covering large areas before they are smuggled to other similar centres that have since erupted on the Kenyan side.

Collection points

Depots in Kenya’s Busia, Malaba, Sio Port, Lwakhakha and Chepkube towns are used as collection points for the “black gold” which is then transported to other destinations in Eldoret, Kisumu, Nakuru, Kericho and all the way to Nairobi for sale.

Abuongo said heavy duty trailers transporting cargo to Uganda, South Sudan, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi are also capitalising on the high demand for the commodity to transport  at the Kenya–Uganda border. The biggest irony of the whole business is that for decades since 1970s to as recently as last year, these cargo trailers just like those transporting petroleum products to these landlocked countries  came back empty after delivering their consignments.

Today, however, after delivering  cargo to depots in Uganda, they are washed clean before they head to the customs and immigration check-in and check-out points for clearance.

Once back in Kenya the trucks head to charcoal depots in the area called “no man’s land”, a buffer zone measuring about 70 metres, which ideally belongs to neither Uganda nor Kenya, to re-load for onward journey.

The People Daily established that  charcoal being smuggled through Sio Port and Port Victoria towns on Lake Victoria’ shores is ferried across the lake in boats before trailers, lorries and pick-up trucks take over for on land transportation to the country’s “hungry” markets.

Busia County Commissioner Michael Tialal confirmed the phenomenon, saying it was a major challenge to the security personnel in the region to clamp down given the highly porous common border.

“Apart from that, operatives in this business are very cunning and elusive and devise all manner of ways to escape security dragnets. We are also outnumbered by them,” he said.

Tilal said these are illegal activities because if traders wanted the commodity they should go through the right channels. “They should get import licences and permits, then go through the customs to pay the relevant charges to Kenya Revenue Authority,” he added.

The smugglers are not just a major challenge to Kenyan law enforcers, but also to their Ugandan counterparts who confirmed the commodity was coming to the border particularly from the eastern and north western parts of that country.

Uganda Busia District Resident Commissioner Hussein Matanda said the situation exploded slightly more than six months ago and has been continuously picking up momentum.

He said Uganda has banned export of charcoal to Kenya in an effort to protect its forests and warned traders and any other person involved in the activity that they  are indulging in an illegal trade and would be dealt with.

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