Innocent Magole, UNDP Ngamiland Sustainable Land Management (SLM) Project coordinator picks up the charcoal from the kiln that has just been opened and shows it to the media before saying, “This is it. This is why we call it black gold”.
The charcoal, which is black with some silver lustre, is providing a silver lining to the communities around the Lake Ngami subsequent to the drying of the lake and collapse of the fish project.
Lake Ngami has always been a source of livelihood for the people of Ngamiland especially in the villages of Sehithwa, Toteng, Legotlhwane, Kareng, Bodibeng and Bothatogo. In the late 1800s Lake Ngami was already a major trading hub. Kgosi Letsholathebe of Batawana controlled the ivory trade and ostrich feathers from Toteng near the lake.A 100 years later the people of the lake found they could no longer trade in ivory or ostrich feathers, so they tapped into fishing, which is regulated by the government. The Lake Ngami Conservation Trust tried a fish project, but the unpredictable lake dried up and collapsed the project.
The drying up of the lake led to a new phenomenon of the encroachment of certain tree species that grew up on the lake pan. These trees are mainly Acacia Erioloba (Camel Thorn/ Mogotho), Acacia Tortilis (Umbrella Thorn/ Mosu) and Acacia Mellifera (Black Thorn/ Mongana).
The Ngamiland SLM project, funded by UNDP/GEF, facilitated the Lake Ngami Conservation Trust to start the charcoal production using mainly these encroachment trees as a resource. Magole, the project coordinator, is quick to reassure that the charcoal production would not cause any deforestation.
“The charcoal is produced from dead wood and bush encroachment species (Acacias), and only at sites that were designated for harvest by the Department of Forestry and Range Resources,” he says. Magole reports that the current tree density in Lake Ngami is 1,000 trees per hectare.
“The area around the lake where trees can be harvested is 800 square kilometres (40km x 20km). That translates to 800,000 trees. At a harvest rate of 100 tonnes per month, it would take 33 years without regeneration to cut all the trees around the lake.”
Interestingly, all of these trees (Mogotho, Mosu and Mongana) that are mostly used for the charcoal production are trees that are traditionally shunned by Batswana for firewood. The people of the lake too do not like these trees when fetching firewood. These Acacia species are widely regarded by Batswana as bad wood for firewood and collectors generally ignore them.
Although the charcoal is produced from trees that are not the people’s preference for firewood, Lake Ngami charcoal is reported to be a top grade product with competitive calorific value or ‘heating value’.
The Ngamiland SLM project, which aims to “mainstream sustainable land management in rangeland areas of Ngamiland District landscapes for improved livelihoods,” recently took members of the Lake Ngami Conservation Trust for training and benchmarking exercise at NAM-Barbeque in Namibia. The project also injected capital in terms of acquiring necessary equipment including, chains, saws, wood cutting machine, kilns and axes.
The charcoal production has provided hope to the people of the lake who were left without any income after the fish disappeared due to the drying lake.
Dirang Kebao and Moses Temba, both welding craftsmen based in Sehithwa, are producing mobile metal kilns for production. The men are battling to cope with demand for more kilns as charcoal production increases.
At the production site, on the dried up lake pan, a group of workers led by Keoagile Mosupiemang and all wearing green overalls with khakhi hats have just started a fire to make another load. The production process began with the cutting of a dead tree – which are plenty around the lake pan. They say one tree produces about 50kg of charcoal.
Wood from the tree is then cut, using a custom made woodcutter designed in Namibia, into small portable logs that would fit inside the kiln. The kiln would then be closed to block oxygen out. Charcoal is produced by slow heating of wood or other combustible substances over a few days in the absence of oxygen.
After a few days the kilns are opened and only the finest charcoal is hand picked and packed into brightly coloured four-kilogramme bags, ready for sale.
“This is a product that is done well, packaged very well and we are not just begging for sympathy sales, saying ‘please support us’, this is a great product,” assures the Lake Ngami Conservation Trust manager, Galefele Maokeng. The trust hopes to yield good profits from the charcoal. According to Maokeng, the community is very excited about the venture and they are hopeful that this would not fail like the fish project. The trust manager hopes the charcoal production would create employment opportunities of over 100 youth during its first year of operation.
Maokeng assured everyone that the trust would not fall into the curse of infighting and gross mismanagement that have been the major cause of downfall for many promising trusts around Ngamiland.
“I try to always involve community leaders; the chief, Village Development Committee, and local government officials in the affairs of the trust. We have conducted workshops to train members about the trust’s plans, so that we are always on the same ship,” said Maokeng. Maokeng further said government, through the District Commissioner’s office, provides a level oversight on the trust’s operations, which would help to keep checks on the trust’s smooth running.
Lake Ngami Charcoal is already available in Maun and the trust has plans to soon export the product to Namibia where the demand for charcoal is high.