May 10, 2022, was a very special day for me–firstly as an administrator, secondly as a teacher, and thirdly, as a woman in the African setting.
As more than 120 people gathered at Gulu University’s new library to witness the launch of our green charcoal (briquettes) research project, which we technically refer to as Unlocking the potential of Green Charcoal Innovations to Mitigate Climate Change in Northern Uganda (UPCHAIN), I was not only excited about us starting to implement this project, but also about the potential impact of the green charcoal concept in transforming livelihoods especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where most of the population relies on biomass energy for cooking.
That morning, I sat quietly and thoughtfully in my chair as I waited for the opening session to begin. It was during that time that I recalled a headline on the website of the Danish Development Research Network (DDRN) about our initial steps towards research in green charcoal development. The headline read thus: Green Charcoal: Could Research at Gulu University Ignite a Biomass Energy Revolution in Uganda? That story was published in May 2021 at the time when we had applied for a grant to take this research to another level. That article clearly brought out the issues behind our research: the need for energy, the need for cleaner energy, the need to address Climate Change, the need to create jobs, and the gender aspects in energy.
As an administrator, I was really happy that BSU had birthed this grand, interdisciplinary research project at Gulu University. To look around the room and see all these researchers from the Faculty of Education and Humanities, Faculty of Business and Development Studies, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Science, Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, Institute of Research and Graduate Studies, as well as researchers from Aalborg University in Denmark, who had participated in developing the project proposal, was really fascinating.
I recalled the very early days when we were starting to conceptualise the green charcoal research idea. Professor Michael Whyte of the University of Copenhagen (who did not attend the launch ceremony) was so passionate about what green charcoal could offer. When he and others returned to Gulu from a study tour in Soroti in November 2019, where they had seen the good work of the Teso Women Development Initiative with their briquettes project, Whyte was so swift in proposing further research to be undertaken on how green charcoal briquettes could be made to mitigate charcoal burning in northern Uganda. This was at the time when the then Chairman of Gulu District Local Government, Ojara Mapenduzi, had staged a spirited fight against tree cutting and charcoal burning in Gulu District.
I have been coordinating BSU for the last six years and I am proud to say that at UGX6bn, this is the largest research project directly coming out of our work here at BSU. Of course I don’t under estimate the enormous contribution of BSU since 2011 in building the capacity of Gulu University both in terms human resource development and infrastructure development especially for research. BSU has among other achievements built Gulu University's capacity to apply for highly competitive external grants such as UPCHAIN.
As a teacher and a researcher, I see a lot of potential in both the sciences and humanities disciplines for research, teaching and learning directly and indirectly coming out of the UPCHAIN project.
To start with, the six PhDs, 12 MAs and one postdoc which are funded by the project will enable us to understand different aspects in green charcoal. Climate Change and Green charcoal are both social and environmental issues and need a new approach to understanding them. The multi-disciplinary approach in the project, for example, creates the puzzle of how History can be used to address Climate Change. This project demystifies the fallacy of the irrelevance of history as a discipline in transforming lives. The different researches will bring out unique ideas around green charcoal and each of those ideas will certainly raise other areas for research, teaching and learning. As another major important benefit, the PhDs and Masters provide the lecturers opportunity for graduate supervision capacity building.
Secondly, because energy and climate change are key social issues, which are well articulated in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Seven and 13 respectively – although this project directly addresses most of the 17 goals – the active participation of the communities in the green charcoal research project offers a good opportunity for knowledge to be turned into practice almost immediately. This learning by doing should make it easier for the communities to adopt green charcoal as they will have seen its benefits in comparison to other crude energy sources such as firewood and black charcoal. The UPCHAIN project provides a new strategy in the use of a bottom-up approach in mitigating climate change from the household level where wood fuel is commonly used as cooking fuel. Providing alternative cooking fuel would help mitigate the destruction of trees and climate change.
And finally, as a woman in the African setting, I recognize the fact that gender imbalance is still strong here. In most African societies the kitchen is a woman’s area and while there, her young children are her regular companions. When it comes to health issues, women and children are the main victims of using unclean fuels such as firewood and black charcoal. They take the biggest chunk of the nearly four million people worldwide who die each year because of using unclean fuels. Besides that, the responsibility of finding energy for cooking, in most cases firewood, falls squarely on women and girls. They sometimes have to walk very long distances to find it and along the way they are exposed to other risks such as sexual violence. The difficulty of accessing wood fuel has often resulted into domestic violence as the woman is unable to prepare food on time. A woman with disability is more affected by the use of wood cooking fuel. Green charcoal would be the solution for women with disabilities. It will improve on the quality of life in the kitchen and cooking, and the household.
Once we are able to deliver green charcoal to the kitchen, we are solving the problem of the woman and the child having to walk long distances in search of energy for cooking, we are preventing health and safety issues that come with searching for and using dirty fuels for cooking, and we are ensuring that girls are staying in schools and women can use their time more efficiently such as increasing their time participation in income generating activities.
We are grateful to DANIDA for again coming in to support our research activities by generously funding the UPCHAIN project.
Dr. Agatha Alidri
Dr. Agatha Alidri is the Coordinator, BSU. She is also a Lecturer of History, Faculty of Education and Humanities, Gulu University.