The Ugandan authorities are favouring concrete over CCA-treated timber poles in some regions – a move that the Kenyan authorities made many years ago but reversed due to excessively high costs.
The change in Uganda has raised fears about the sustainability of the timber treatment industry and the large number of smallholder farmers who supply timber to treaters.
Deliveries of treated timber to the central, northern, and eastern regions of the country began drying up a few years ago, Dolphin Bay customers said. These days, there are very few deliveries to these areas.
The timber treatment industry in Uganda has not yet suffered substantially due to the change, simply because there is such a huge demand for utility poles. However, they are concerned for the future.
Kenya Power changed its orders from CCA-treated timber to concrete poles years ago, citing substandard treated wooden poles and the resultant high cost of replacing them. However, in March 2020 Kenya Power made a U-turn and reverted back to wooden poles.
Wooden utility poles are believed to cost at least 50% less per pole compared to a concrete pole, conservatively speaking, when all costs are considered.
“There are poles installed in Uganda in the 1950s that are still perfect for the conditions in which they have been used.”
Concrete poles, like wooden poles, will fail early if they are not properly manufactured or handled, pointed out a senior executive of a regional pole supply company.
The heaviness of concrete poles makes them less suitable for rural areas to which long trucking trips are required, and they are more suitable for urban areas. They are hollow inside and, if not handled carefully, can be easily damaged.
Due to their heaviness, they need specialised equipment such as cranes for offloading.
The only reason a timber pole will fail is because it has not been seasoned and treated correctly, said a senior executive of a Uganda treated timber pole supply company. “If the pole has been properly seasoned to bring down its moisture content to the required level, and then treated the correct way with an approved chemical, you’ll have a perfect pole. There are timber poles installed in Uganda in the 1950s that are still perfect for the conditions within which they have been used.”
Another issue that was pointed out is the fact that wooden poles have a negative carbon footprint, whilst concrete has a large one.
“Throughout East Africa there are literally thousands of small farmers that grow timber for poles. Stopping the use of wooden poles means denying income to these smallholders. All in all, there is a lot to be said for wooden poles over concrete.”
Foresters invest in their eucalyptus plantations at last 10 years before they can sell their timber. For pine trees, the period is up to 20 years.
The timber treatment industry in Uganda is hampered by a lack of long-term supply contracts and onerous payment terms initiated.
“With enforcement of specifications and standards the authorities can negate the problem of pole failures,” one of the senior executives said.
“The authorities have a perfect opportunity to acquire affordable and quality product in the form of wooden poles. The standards for treated timber in Uganda have been drawn up in line with international standards.”
Dolphin Bay believes there are appropriate contexts for using wooden poles. “However, the decision needs to be made on right basis,” said Bertus.