At the peak of electricity crisis, charcoal demand almost doubled in the country. Producers dashed to Mwanza, Neno and Ntcheu in the Southern Region to produce the most-sought after product. Our reporter BOBBY KABANGO visited the districts and found environmental destruction at a large scale, and traditional leaders and the police at the heart of the business.
Two weeks after he returned from the UN climate change conference in December 2010, the then energy minister, Grain Malunga, made a controversial public pronouncement: “Arrest all charcoal sellers.”
Prosecuting them, he argued, would save the country from the devastating effects of deforestation and deter others from chopping down trees for charcoal.
His comments caused considerable consternation in a country where 93 percent of the urban population uses charcoal and where a government rural electrification programme has not borne much fruit.
In spite of the flak he received from an irate public, Malunga said arresting charcoal sellers under the Forestry Act had more to do with the environment than with punishing poor people.
“When it comes to the economics of energy, electricity is a lot cheaper than charcoal,” Malunga said.
But after electricity generation fell in September 2017 to between 145 and 150 megawatts (MW) from 351MW, Malawians, mostly those living in urban areas turned to charcoal for fuel.
Charcoal became hot business. Malawi’s natural forests became the victim.
In Blantyre and Zomba the price of a bag of charcoal soare with some selling it at K8 500. While smaller bags still sell at between K5 500 and K4 500.
Weekend Investigates found that chiefs, police and forestry officers in Neno and Ntcheu districts are among the main beneficiaries of charcoal that also ends up in Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Mwanza, Zomba, Balaka and Chikwawa, among other districts.
Posing as a charcoal buyer, this reporter camped in village headman Kabwayibwayi’s area in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makwangwala in Ntcheu.
The headman’s wife assured me they had a lot of land, where charcoal producers set up camps. She said producers come from all districts in the Southern Region.
“I want to assure you that you will do the business,” she said when I inquired about a wood forest for charcoal as she led me to the chief.
The chief himself—Kabwayibwayi—was more reassuring. “Don’t worry. I have enough trees. But you have to pay chankhalango [a fee to see the wood lot].
I found out that with the help of the chief’s aide, a charcoal producer can be allocated a piece of forest from where he can produce up to 1 000 bags of charcoal in return for 30 bags of charcoal if one does not make an upfront payment.
People interviewed in the area said after producing the charcoal, you have to pay the police and forestry officials to smuggle the charcoal out of the forest.
A bag costs K300. This means that a State official on duty can pocket up to K300 000 for every 1 000 bags of charcoal.
“There is no way, charcoal can reach Blantyre or Zomba without bribing forestry officials and the police,” said one charcoal producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.
There are three routes to Kabwayibwayi’s area which is about 90 kilometres northwest of Phalula. Other routes are via Kanono and Kammwamba, and Neno for those from Mwanza. Government officers are bribed anywhere along the route.
The chief said over 3 000 people from Zomba, Ntcheu, Mwanza, Neno, Balaka, Blantyre and Chikwawa are involved in the charcoal business either as buyers or producers. Blantyre is the hottest market, he says.
The air in the forest is filled with smoke as charcoal producers dash to roll out the next bag of charcoal out of the production furnaces.
Most of Neno, Mwanza, Ntcheu and part of Balaka have now been cleared of forests and people have converged on the border between Malawi and Mozambique—in Neno—where there are still some trees. Once this forest is cleared no one knows what will happen.
Posing as a charcoal producer and armed with empty sacks, this reporter was allocated a woodlot from where to produce charcoal. I did not have time or expertise to make my own charcoal so I opted to buy five bags.
A bag costs K2 000. Producers said for a bag to be transported to markets in Blantyre, buyers pay K2 500 per bag. This reporter, who wanted to investigate how five bags can be smuggled out of the forest, was asked to pay an additional K300 for each bag for “997”, a reference to police patrol
“Most of the times we meet police and they charge us K300. We collect the K300 from buyers in advance to pay off police officers or forestry officials,” one charcoal producer, who was my escort only named Happy, explains.
He says even at Zalewa Roadblock officials are easily bribed, that’s why charcoal gets to Blantyre: “Just give the driver [who smuggles the charcoal] K2 500 plus K300 and you will get your bag in Blantyre. He will pay K300 [to bribe officials] at the [Zalewa] roadblock.
Happy says there are additional charges for loading and offloading. I paid a total of K25 500 for five bags which included the price for buying the charcoal, transport, bribing the officers on the way and for loading and offloading.
By 3am Saturday, the lorry that carried the five bags arrived at Khama market in Machinjiri Blantyre offloading about 250 bags which were smuggled out of Neno forests.
Within a few minutes the lorry was empty as all charcoal had been sold.
Shortage of charcoal is forcing some vendors to start importing the product from Mozambique. Imported charcoal bags sell between K4 500 and K5 500.
“Demand for charcoal is at an all time high,” one vendor said as he picked his bag and disappeared into Machinjiri Township.
Malawi loses more than 123 000 acres of forest every year, the highest deforestation rate in the region. Between 1990 and 2005, Malawi lost over 12.7 percent of its forest cover, according to Oxfam.
Local forestry experts say it takes nine tons of wood to make one ton of charcoal. Government estimates that only about six-percent of the 18 million people in Malawi have access to electricity, which leaves the large majority of the urban population using up 154 000 tons of charcoal per year.
Forestry expert Bennet Mataya argues the problem of charcoal in Malawi is that trees are not being planted at the same rate as they are being cut. The thing is, charcoal is potentially a renewable forest resource. In one of his study, Mataya say the charcoal business could earn the government about $39 million (about K30 billion), with VAT on the commodity bringing in more than $6.5 million (about K4.8 billion) annually.
Deputy director of forestry Ted Kamoto says Malawi faces an uphill task to deal with charcoal production because “85 per cent of people in Malawi are still using charcoal for domestic cooking.”
But what is even more worrying as explained by chairperson of the committee Welani Chilenga the fight against charcoal burning in the cannot be won because corruption is rampant among police officers and other government officers manning roadblocks, a blame National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera layed on communities in the area where charcoal is produced.
“People should report to police whenever an officer is seen receiving bribes,” he says.