Malawi, the government and environmental NGOs have joined together in an effort to
reduce dependency on charcoal for cooking and heating. They’re looking for
other forms of energy because the charcoal trade has left most of the country’s
woodlands bare. But most Malawians find it difficult to switch. Statistics
indicate that almost all Malawians depend on charcoal for
cooking. Other conventional sources of fuel such as gas, solar
and paraffin are rare and expensive.
Sumani is a housewife in the commercial capital, Blantyre. She says, “I use charcoal because electricity
is very expensive for cooking or heating. Moreover, charcoal is also sold in
smallest qualities at affordable prices for most of ordinary Malawians. I
cannot stop using it, I cannot stop.”
stoves are also cheaper than electrical appliances like cookers and heaters. A
brand new hotplate costs around US$30, while a locally made charcoal stove costs around US$2 and needs no sophisticated
maintenance. A sizable bag of charcoal in urban areas costs
about US$7. Sumani says for an average family of seven, like her own, it may
last a week. But those who use electricity may pay twice as much for their
cooking and heating.
has shown that 140,000 tons of charcoal are produced every year in Malawi.
Environmentalists say this is the main reason for the loss of about 50,000
hectares of indigenous forest every year – the highest deforestation rate in
the region of the Southern African Development Community.
charcoal trade is illegal in Malawi. Police at roadblocks have been
confiscating it but have not stopped the trade.
Manda produces the fuel in the southern district of Mwanza, one of the areas
mostly ravaged by deforestation due to charcoal production, “I have been
burning charcoal for 20 years.This is
where my bread and butter come from; this is where I get money to pay school
fees for my children. Although I know that it is not legal, there
is no way I can stop without government giving me an alternative business.”
Mauambeta is the executive director of Wildlife and Environmental Society of
Malawi, an independent NGO that fights environmental degradation. He says
efforts are underway to divert communities to other profitable ventures instead
of producing charcoal. “For example, some communities are keeping the
bees which are producing the honey (which) they sell. Others are keeping the
guinea fowl, which they also sell, while other communities are producing baobab
fruit juices, aiming at increasing income at their household level,” he says.
says his organization is running a program that encourages communities to plant
trees they can use for firewood.
report released in December 2007 entitled “Charcoal Consumption, Trade and
Production in Malawi,” recommends the regulation of the charcoal industry as
opposed to criminalization.
The author, economist Patrick Kambewa,
told the UN humanitarian news agency, IRIN, that criminalizing the industry
means arresting thousands of people involved in one of the few industries that
benefit the poor.
He says the scale of charcoal
production, if regulated, could make it one of the country's top earners after
tobacco and tea, and would also encourage the sustainable use of wooded areas.
The report estimates that the industry
employs about 93,000 people as producers, transporters and roadside or urban
Mauambeta says negotiations are in place with government on regulating the
trade. He favors a system that would legally allow communities to manage
forests and provide licenses to communities to produce charcoal. By limiting
the number of licenses issued and restricting the amount of charcoal allowed
under each one, the state could control the amount of forest loss.
adds, “We are engaging the government to develop systems that would allow the
communities to own forests at the same time to get a license from the
Department of Forestry. Then, they can start manufacturing charcoal and pay
taxes to the government from the business.”
Kalebe is the minister of energy and mining. He says the government has begun a
six-year program known as Improving Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihood. He
says the program, run jointly by the European Union and the Malawi government
aims to improve the livelihood of communities through the sustainable and
collaborative management of forests. Kalebe says the program also encourages the
communities to use wind power and solar energy.
skeptics doubt the effort will succeed, given the huge financial profits that
traders gain from charcoal sales.
Manda says he makes about US$200 per month from selling charcoal – good money
for a villager and above the average pay for many workers. That includes
journalists, who may only earn around US$70 a month.