In 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.
Jane 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.”
Coal-burning 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.
Research 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.
The charcoal trade is illegal in Malawi. Police at roadblocks have been confiscating it but have not stopped the trade.
John 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.”
Daulos 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.
Mauambeta says his organization is running a program that encourages communities to plant trees they can use for firewood.
A 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 vendors.
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.
He 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.”
Ted 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.
But skeptics doubt the effort will succeed, given the huge financial profits that traders gain from charcoal sales.
John 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.