<i>By Prossy Nandudu</i>

Domestic gas users pointed out that the price and quality of charcoal were the main drivers for the increasing popularity and usage of cooking gas.

"Charcoal is too expensive yet it does not last because of its poor quality. But a 14kg cooking gas cylinder can work for between two to three months. That is why I have resorted to using gas. It helps with my budgeting and planning given the volatile economic environment," a user, explained. But charcoal traders have blamed the hike in prices to high transport costs and the scarcity of charcoal following a ban on felling trees for timber and charcoal burning by the National Forest Authority.

The surging demand for cooking gas has created scarcity of the product, leading to high retail prices. A 13kg cooking gas cylinder now costs sh80,000, up from sh43,000, while that of 14kg sells for between sh100,000 and sh120, 000, up from sh90,000 two months ago. This has sent the stocks dwindling. A bag of charcoal costs sh70,000 to sh100,000 across the city suburbs, but lasts a month, depending on usage and its quality, up from sh30,000 two months ago.

Even the small retail dealers, who used to sell at sh1,000, have increase to between sh1,200 and sh1,500. However, cooking gas suppliers and traders have dismissed claims that stocks had run out.

Simon Waibale of the Home Gas attributed the "scarcity" to poor distribution channels and the monopoly by major suppliers of gas cylinders. "Most gas cylinders are tied to different suppliers who only visit their clients once a week. Once the gas has run out, the customer has to wait for the owners of the cylinders to refill. This appears to create a shortage," he added.

Waibale, however, admitted that the demand for gas had increased. He observed that other firms that could refill the cylinders were limited because they cannot use rival company cylinders. Shell and Total are the biggest distributers of cooking gas cylinders. It was not possible to get a comment from either of them over the weekend. "Previously on average, we were supplying 250 gas cylinders in a week. This has doubled. As I speak, we have 500 orders of gas components," Waibale disclosed.

Mabel Bob Bamels, the Wana Energy Solutions marketing manager, said the initial cost involved in purchasing the gas unit and a little bit of ignorance had been limiting the use of gas. This, he said, led to more dependence on charcoal. Setting up an initial gas unit goes for sh250,000, up from sh10,000 a few years ago. This is on top of the refilling costs. "Because of these changes, we are receiving more clients," said Bamels. He said much as the start-up package was expensive for ordinary users, it was cheaper in the long-run.