From Stone Age till date, humanity has continued to experiment on the most energy efficient method, the best, healthiest and most economically viable source of energy for cooking. The experimentations for a less stressful, less hazardous and relatively cheap source of cooking method have undergone various crude and modern stages.
From the use of firewood to the contemporary cooking gas age, charcoal seems to have stood the test of time, surviving from generation to generation. While it serves multiple purposes for the pastorals like household cooking and for the blacksmith’s workshops, those in the metropolis use charcoal majorly for cooking.
Considering factors like economic hardship and cost of cooking alternatives like gas and kerosene for stoves, many residents of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, especially those at the suburbs constitute major users of charcoal.
Curiously, the price of charcoal does not even come so cheap in Abuja, perhaps because of the high demands by the residents already feeling the heavy weight of the cost of using the alternatives.
What makes it affordable may not be unconnected with the variation in prices. Those who cannot afford the full bag, costing between N2000 and N3500 have the option of settling for a small bag, selling for N150 or N200, depending on the area and the person involved.
From Nyanya, Mararaba, Bwari, Dutse, Zuba, Madalla, Kubwa, Kuje Gwagwalada to Jukwai, charcoal is never in short demand and supply. As the demands are increasing, there are equally corresponding increases in the number of dealers.
Interestingly, the high demand for charcoal by the residents of the FCT has resulted in business boom, increase in the number of dealers and viable source of income and employment to many average Abuja resident families.
Surprisingly, both the dealers and big end users travel many kilometres on trucks to source the product at communities like Abaji, Yangoji, Yaba, Rubochi, Kwali, all along Abuja-Lokoja Road and remote Abuja villages like Kuchako in the Kuje Area Council.
Although charcoal, a seasonal product, faces serious transportation challenges, the end users, the dealers and the producers have equally devised means of overcoming, to a larger extent, the challenges. For instance, aware that charcoal is better sourced during the dry season, many households and dealers told Daily Sun that they usually buy several bags during the dry season to beat the hurdle of bad roads as a result of constant rainfalls, floods and erosions.
Beyond the affordability of the cooking product, what looks like the reason for the high demand for charcoal is that it gets hotter than firewood and even standard gas grills. Researches have confirmed that charcoal typically cook up to 500F and can even cook as hot as 700F.
Users of charcoal said apart from being useful for long cooking, especially during big events, a N150 bag of charcoal is enough to prepare any kind of meal for an average family.
However, charcoal is not just too dirty to handle but can also be difficult to light, taking about 15 minutes long to get up to temperature. It is also difficult to determine what temperature one is cooking at, just as it cannot be turned down rapidly.
Again, there can be flare-ups that can burn the food which come with a health risk. During long cooking, it can be stressful as it slowly loses the heat, which requires adding more charcoal. It rarely has rotisseries, just as there will be lots of ashes to clean up after usage.
Most of these problems are easily surmounted if one knows how. With the use of gloves, shovels, or tongs, one needs not ever handle raw coals. The most worrisome aspect of the use of charcoal is in the area of deforestation.
Mixed feelings for users
A journalist with Radio Nigeria, Eugene Ngwu, told Daily Sun: “From my investigations, it is a whole lot of tedious processes that go into the production of charcoal. It takes days to complete the processes, stretching from sourcing for the wood, cutting, heating, cooling, sorting, bagging and transporting.
“The price is certainly not commensurate with the tedious production processes. I use charcoal to augment cooking gas. What I do most times is to buy from 10 to 20 bags during the dry season when it is usually cheaper and easier to transport the products since the motorable roads are usually in a terrible state of disrepair during the rainy season.
“During that time, a bag usually sells for N1800 as against the rainy season when the deplorable state of the road will contribute in increasing the price. Once we buy those numbers of bags, they will be enough to carry us throughout the year. We usually use charcoal to supplement our cooking gas especially in cooking fire consuming foods.
“Although charcoal can be sourced easily in many remote villages, we usually buy them in bags because combination of factors, like bad roads, usually pushes the price high during the rainy season. Agreed that cooking with charcoal comes with certain challenges, but it is a stopgap to other methods like cooking gas and it is also cleaner than using firewood.”
A dealer in Kuje, Mama Helen, said the continued increase in the number of entrants into the business has affected the gain they made in the past. “Charcoal business no be am again,” she expressed sadness in a Pidgin English: “Before now when we were very few in the business, we used to make lots of gains from the turnover demands. But the situation is not the same again because everybody is now selling charcoal.
“I remember in those days, I could order for a lorry-load of charcoal and sell all within one week. The few of us into the business achieved so much from it then, including training our children in schools and building the houses we live in till today. It was a very lucrative business then and the gain we made then beclouded the hazards of the business.
“Today, the situation has changed. Everybody is not only a dealer now but also ready to supply the product to every home in need of it. Again, most families now using cooking gas are equally affecting charcoal business. The truth is that charcoal business is not easy.
“The business comes with serious health hazards because of the volume of charcoal dust we inhale on daily basis. We are perpetually on drugs to battle the constant inhalations. Look at my body painted blacks from head to toe. This is an aspect we cannot avoid because we must be touching the product. I am sure that charcoal business is responsible for the dark skin I have now.
“Besides the health hazards and large number of persons joining the business, the challenges of transporting the goods from the remote villages due to bad roads is also affecting us. The roads to the villages are just too bad, forcing the motorists to either avoid them or charge us higher even when the users are not ready to pay more.
“The one seriously affecting us in Kuje now is stealing the product where we parked them. It usually happens more on Sunday when we don’t come to the market. These boys will just uncover them and take as many as they want without anybody challenging them. The stealing is really affecting the business.
“We have complained to the relevant agencies but their response has even discouraged us from complaining. They will just treat it as collecting ordinary charcoal and fail to understand that removing any little bag will affect our gain.”
Asked if she is aware that charcoal is responsible for deforestation, she replied: “How does that concern me? My business is to put calls to my suppliers to demand for the number of bags in need. The truth is that I don’t really care to know what process goes into the production. I am not even in any hurry to quit the business now.”