Charcoal: Somalia’s burning issue

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Switzerland

Publishing organisation: CORRECTIV

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-12-13

Language: English, German

Authors: Marc Engelhardt, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, Bettina Rühl, Assia Shidane, Niklas Jordan


Marc Engelhardt is director of the CORRECTIV CrowdNewsroom and a former Africa correspondent, now based in Geneva. Abdalle Ahmed Mumin and Assia Shidane are both freelance Somali journalists, based in Mogadishu and Nairobi. Bettina Rühl lives in Nairobi and is an Africa correspondent with weltreporter.net. Niklas Jordan is an expert in the interpretation of satellite imagery. Together, they worked as a team to uncover the secrets of the Somali charcoal trade.

Project description:

With the help of our own open source, internet based investigation platform, the CrowdNewsroom, CORRECTIV investigated the charcoal trade that has been known to finance islamist terrorists in Somalia. Collaborators of the terrorists as well as inhabitants of terrorist controlled areas confidentially shared vital data with us that we cross checked with satellite imagery. Local journalists on the ground were also involved. Our final data sets confirmed not only that islamists are still profiting from the charcoal business, but that parts of the government are profiteers as well. A possible reason why the trade has grown over the past years.

Impact reached:

Somalia is a country where journalists rarely dare to tread. Large parts of the country are controlled by Al-Shabaab, an islamist militia that is part of Al-Qaida. Stories from Somalia thus are often based on anecdotical evidence and a few interviews if any. The use of the CrowdNewsroom enabled us to draw from a large sample of people who are part of the charcoal value chain, even if they live in places that are off-limits to journalists. Somali journalists reported back from colleagues that the interest to use that tool for future investigations is high (and easily possible since the tool is open source and in Somali language). The original story was published in German. We decided to translate it into English so that it can be read by Somalis in exile as well as by people in the region.

Techniques/technologies used:

The main tool to gather our data is the CrowdNewsroom, an open source, internet based interview tool that enables participants to answer questions (in writing) from their cell phones, upload files (o.e. photos), send GPS data and additional information they want to share. The participation is anonymous (though people can leave contact details if they wish), and the data is stored safely and securely on servers run by CORRECTIV. Somali journalists helped us to spread the word about our investigation. Based on the data from the CrowdNewsroom, we were able to reconstruct the value chain from logging to shipping and identified the places throughout Somalia where the trade is happening. Those places, provided by collaborators of the charcoal trade themselves, were verified with the help of satellite imagery available through Google Earth Pro and the Sentinel Hub. The result provides a comprehensive overview of a trade that could not be investigated in such a systematic way before.

Context about the project:

The CrowdNewsroom has been programmed to collect data from a large number of people with the aim of exposing systemic problems behind social grievances. In the past years, we have used the tool to i.e. identify ownership of real estate in large cities in order to find out about the engagement of offshore companies or rogue investors. The CrowdNewsroom was enhanced to widen the scope of these investigations. In a war-torn country like Somalia, reliable data is virtually non-existent. The CrowdNewsroom enables journalists to collect data on their own, together with proof that is uploaded to a secure server. Moreover, it’s normal people on the ground who can share their info regardless of their affiliation or status, simply through a smart phone which almost everybody has access to. In contrast, most stories about Somalia or similar countries are usually based on interviews with interested parties, i.e. politicians, aid organizations or United Nations representatives.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The investigation of the Somali charcoal trade has been designed as a pilot project that will hopefully encourage journalists in other countries to set up similar investigations. The CrowdNewsroom not only is open source, it can also be adapted to almost any language. Since it’s browser based, there are no technical prerequisites. Our hope is that it will make it easier to conduct investigations in conflict areas or even battle fields, always in collaboration with journalists on the ground (even if not on the frontline) who know their country well.

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