Cooking gas’ soaring prices: Time for charcoal alternative

Nigerians are groaning under the pains of soaring prices of cooking gas despite the abundant gas reserves in the country. ELEOJO IDACHABA examines this scenario against repeated calls by the government for Nigerians to embrace gas for cooking.

Most Nigerians were contented with the use of kerosene, and in many cases, charcoal as fuel for cooking, until a few years ago when through unofficial campaign, the government indicated that with the availability of gas reserves in the country, it was cheaper for many homes especially the middle-class families to migrate towards the use of gas for as against kerosene, charcoal and firewood. Until then, the usage of gas was relatively low, at least, among the middle-class except the upper class in the country.

The promise

It was, however, Ibe Kachikwu, the then minister of state for petroleum and natural resources, who prior to that appointment was the group managing director of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) that in 2016 brought the matter to the fore when he blatantly admonished Nigerians to embrace the use of gas.

According to him, the federal government would ensure that the era of using kerosene and firewood for cooking came to an end.

He said by the end of 2016, the cooking gas revolution would be taken to Nigeria’s sprawling rural communities where most of the 122 million compatriots eking out a living below the poverty line cook with firewood. He even went further to say that the federal government would flood the markets with gas cylinders in order to make the migration seamless. As from that period, it became a policy statement; however, five years after, that statement now looks like speaking from both sides of the mouth.

As the GMD of NNPC, Kachikwu lamented that the Corporation was spending incredulous sums on kerosene subsidy, the reason for which he promised what he called a ‘cooking gas revolution’ that would drive kerosene and charcoal out of many homes.

Unfulfilled promise?

However, while writing on ‘Gas price, the return of firewood to kitchens,’ a newspaper columnist, Jerry Uwah, took a swipe at the policy, saying it is one of those failed promises of the government.

“Under the cooking gas revolution, Kachikwu promised to flood Nigeria with free cooking gas cylinders and cookers in a desperate bid to compel those at the upper end of the low income bracket to abandon kerosene and use gas.

“Ironically, by the time Kachikwu was eased out of the petroleum resources ministry in 2019, not one gas cylinder had been delivered to any Nigerian as the ousted minister promised. The cooking gas revolution turned out to be one of Kachikwu’s superfluities of failed promises,” Uwah wrote.

According to Uwah, Nigerians are familiar with their treacherous rulers who only know how to talk more but act less.

“Those who waited for Kachikwu’s free gas cylinders and cooking equipment are sufficiently frustrated to enact their own plans to drive kerosene out of their kitchens. With kerosene now selling at N300 per litre, many have grudgingly switched to gas.

“At the price of N3, 700 for 12.5kg at the beginning of 2021, cooking gas was comparatively cheaper than kerosene. Many saved to buy expensive gas cylinders which, unlike Kachikwu’s failed promise, cost them anything from N14, 000 for the 12.5kg version.”

To compound the double-speak posture of government officials, Uwah noted that a year after Kachikwu left office, the NNPC came up with another complaint that ageing gas cylinders pose a serious threat to users as they could explode and kill scores while also razing down houses. To that extent, he said the corporation would change the country’s cooking gas cylinder ownership policy.

“It could be recalled that less than 20 years ago, empty cylinders were filled by gas dealers while consumers went home with another one filled with gas by distributors.

“The policy was suddenly replaced with one that made consumers the permanent owners of the cylinders. The danger in the current policy is that consumers hardly change their cylinders. Even as the average lifespan of a standard cooking gas cylinder is pegged at 15 years, there are gas cylinders in the kitchens of some Nigerians that are 30 years old.

“When it starts rusting, the owner gives it a new coat of paint that takes care of its aesthetics and conceals the ticking time bomb behind the treacherous paint coat. Most of the cooking gas cylinders in the homes of Nigerians are just waiting to explode as they have spent about twice their expected life span.

“It was therefore argued that standardisation and safe use of cooking gas could only be ensured when ownership of gas cylinders rests strictly with dealers and distributors. Consequently, NNPC promised to retrieve cylinders periodically and subject them to stress tests and re-certification to ensure safety.

“Two years into the announcement of the grandiose plan, not one re-certification plant is known to have been set up to facilitate the stress tests which would ensure that the cylinders are not sitting time bombs. That again has joined the long list of failed promises on the federal government’s numerous plans to enhance Nigeria’s appalling gas consumption rate.

Mr. Uwah, no doubt, captured the present scenario of the planned gas revolution by the government that has not seen the light of day as most families have resorted to the use of charcoal for cooking owing to the soaring price of gas.

A gas dealer in Gwarinpa, Abuja, Emeka Ugwoke, told this reporter that many families who were used to filling their 12kg cylinders now buy 3kg because between December 2020 and now, the price of 12kg which used to be less than 4,000 has moved up to 6,500.

“Some families have decided to go for the 3kg that goes for N1, 700 as against 6,500 naira because of the rising price. Some no longer buy gas,” he said.

Now the federal government has proved its failure with the gas revolution, Nigerians say that they were wrong to have switched to gas in the first place, saying they would have to re-toll their kitchen again to be able to cook.

Mr. Uwah also noted that, “This time, many would not return to kerosene because with the upbeat crude oil price, the pump price of the dirty cooking fuel would be sailing perilously close to N350 per litre.

“With poverty on the rampage and food inflation surging out of control, the only option left is for thousands in urban Nigeria to join millions of their compatriots in rural communities to cook with firewood because they fall trees and turn them to cooking fuel.”

The missing link

Since all petroleum-related products are imported into the country despite ownership of the natural reserve, investigation by Blueprint Weekend reveals that imported gas arrives Nigeria with incredulous landing cost because the federal government worsened the landing cost by imposing 7.5 per cent value added tax (VAT) on it despite being classified among food components.

Again, Uwah said, “No one in the government knows how to bring down the price of cooking gas. Not even the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), the company processing gas mainly for the export market which has a very limited facility for processing cooking gas.

“Even with the limited facility, NLNG has raised its allocation of cooking gas to the domestic market from 350,000 to 450,000 metric tons. That ironically is just 40 per cent of the local consumption. The remaining 60 per cent is imported at the ridiculous exchange rate of N530 to the dollar.

“With NNPC swindling the federal government on petrol subsidy through dubious consumption figures, no one wants to add cooking gas subsidy to the list. Nigeria’s per capita LPG consumption stands shamefully at 2.6kg per annum, while Senegal chalks up an intimidating 9kg. With high gas prices driving many into re-tooling for firewood, Nigeria’s consumption might drop to 2kg.”

Charcoal dealers’ gains

Already, as the prices of cooking continue to rise in all parts of the country, it’s gains for dealers of charcoal. This reporter’s investigation in the high-brow Gwarinpa area of Abuja shows that charcoal tugged in sacks of different sizes adorn almost every street as it has become an affordable alternative to cooking gas and kerosene that is also unaffordable.

A seller popularly called Mama Nene along the 1st Avenue told this reporter that she had to resign from her appointment as cleaner in a private school to start selling charcoal when she realised that it was already becoming the new source of fuel for cooking. Standing beside the heap of sacks containing charcoal, she said.

“I resigned from the school where I was working as a cleaner to start selling this charcoal. In that school, my salary was N20, 000 from where I transport to the place. I was thinking of what to do until a teacher there advised me to start selling charcoal in front of my house in Gwarinpa village. I was combining it with working, but I realised that charcoal pays me better than cleaning, so when we were forced to sit at home last year because of Covid-19, I refused to return to the school because this business kept me and my daughter throughout the lockdown. Since then, I have not regretted it. Now I have this place instead of the little space in front of my house.”

She noted that the price of charcoal is also on a steady rise because the correct ones are sourced from far away Shiroro in Niger state, but because of banditry taking toll on the citizens, no one can freely go there, and instead they now buy them from Nasarawa and Benue states. She, however, said the quality is so poor compared to the ones from Niger.

Experts’ concerns

Analysts are however worried that if nothing is done by the government to arrest the return to usage of charcoal for fuel, the days of cutting down trees are here again.

According to Malam Hassan Maradu of the National Parks, “Most economic trees in our forests are at risk of extinction if the ongoing deforestation by locals is continued. In many instances, these are done under the cover of night. The latest reason we are informed is due to the attraction with charcoal.”

It is believed that in many surrounding settlements within the Federal Capital Territory, for instance, what is known as tree belt is fast disappearing because they are being pulled down due to various human activities bothering on roads construction, building and lately for fuel. It is not clear how far this would continue, but from all indications, it’s a return to the era of charcoal again.

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