One of the first things visitors to Mogadishu notice is the charcoal trade visible along the roads of the city. Long convoys of heavily loaded charcoal trucks move through Mogadishu virtually every day, carrying huge loads of the country’s most valuable energy commodity.
Charcoal is made by chopping down trees, setting fire to a closely stacked pile of branches and trunks and covering it with earth so that the amount of air to the flames is limited. Statistics show that 87 percent of Somalia’s energy consumption comes from traditional fuels such as charcoal or firewood, a trend that has taken a harsh toll on the environment. Once covered by acacias, huge swaths of Somalia’s south and central regions are today virtually deforested as Somalis struggle to meet energy demands at home and sell vast amounts of charcoal for export as well. Despite an official ban on the export of charcoal, truckloads of it clog the roads to the seaport, bound most likely for big Arabian cities such as Jeddah, Sana’a and Dubai.
Some in Somalia are switching to more modern means of power, however. Electric lamps can be seen in a number of Mogadishu’s neighborhoods these days. The electricity is provided by the Somali Electric Co, which is owned by Somali businessmen. But for most Somalis regular electricity is out of reach. The lack of an effective central government combined with the destruction of the nation’s energy infrastructure has left up to 90 percent of the Somali population without access to electric power.
Given the environmental damage caused by excess use of firewood and charcoal, it is clear that alternative energy is an appropriate, beneficial and economically viable sector for investment. A recent UN-sponsored conference held in Istanbul, Turkey, outlined ways in which Somalia can develop its economy on alternative energy through power drawn from wind and sun. Somalia’s extensive coastline is regarded as a promising site for construction of wind farms, which could supply energy to many of the major urban centers such as Mogadishu, Kismayo, Bossaso and Berbera.
According to statistics available, 50 percent of Somali territory has wind speeds suitable for electric energy production (wind speeds higher than 6 meters per second). Experts at the conference argued that solid and liquid biomass renewable options in Somalia have largely been unexplored as well but could have potential. Somalia’s crop waste, animal material, animal waste and marine biomass are all also potential fuel sources for Somalis.
Solar photovoltaic systems are already being used in health centers and water systems in rural areas. Abdinur Sheikh Abdullahi, a trader in Nairobi, Kenya, who supplies solar panels to many shops in Mogadishu, says the use of the panels are generally replacing the generators as a source of electricity in Mogadishu.
“Many people in Mogadishu are nowadays buying solar panels because they realized the availability of the sun at all time,” said Abdullahi. “Solar technology innovation has helped us a lot in terms of generating electricity.”
For now, though, charcoal remains Somalia’s most precious energy material. And it allows thousands of low-paid laborers to make a living as long as Somalia remains in essence unwired.