Making wood fuel renewable

Unreliable power supply is increasing the smoky appetite for charcoal and firewood across the country.

At Kameza Roundabout in Blantyre, trucks and bicycles bringing charcoal into the city come in quick succession from all directions.

This is typical sight as just 10 percent of the population has access to electricity and only one of these use it for cooking.

The cooking crisis has left forests trees going up in smoke as  nearly every home in the country relies on wood fuel.

Charcoal on the move: Lack of energy altenatives is speeding up deforestation

Energy poverty

According to statistics from the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, nearly 97 percent of households in the country uses charcoal and firewood for cooking and heating,

Firewood remains the most used cooking fuel for 87.7 percent of households, but over half of urban Malawians—54 percent of the households—predominantly use charcoal.

“With alternative fuel sources underdeveloped, firewood and charcoal will continue to form a significant part of Malawi’s energy mix for the next few decades,” reads the national strategy to combat charcoal points to a grim reality.

In Traditional Authority (T/A) Kunthembwe on the outskirts of Blantyre, village head Chavala is worried that rural Malawians charcoal production is booming amid rising demand in the city where townships go all day without power.

“Forests are vanishing. We need to do something before all trees vanish,” he says.

The dark side of the country’s energy map is that only 95 percent of Malawians in rural areas,  where 81 percent of the population lives, remains excluded from the national grid.

“People have no alternative, but rely on trees for home use and income generation. Forests are fading,” he says.

Bags of charcoal are visibly on sale and on the move, a common sight on the 900km road trip from Blantyre to Karonga on the northern tip of the country.


Turning to trees

Clearly, the off-grid majority is turning to biomass in a desperate search for energy.

“I prefer firewood and charcoal to electricity which is intermittent. They are easily accessible and cheap,” says John Makhuwira of Njewa in Lilongwe.

But the flourishing charcoal business is environmentally unsustainable. Forests are vanishing, soil erosion is rising and rivers are being silted.

As environmental degradation worsens, women walk long distance to access firewood.

The silent crisis is that deforestation makes the country vulnerable to drought, floods and other effects of climate change, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Renew’N’Able Malawi (Renama), which backs the global campaign for sustainable energy, is sensitising communities to switch to simple and sustainable ways of using biomass energy.

Renama advocacy officer Kenneth Mtago says biomass is renewable energy source that has become unsustainable due to sluggish steps to replant trees harvested for firewood and charcoal.

He explains: “Laxity in reforestation and absence of information on alternative energy increases inefficient production of wood energy.

“There is no problem with using dead wood or harvesting trees, but people should be encouraged to plant trees and using it sustainably to conserve the environment.”

The institution is running an awareness campaign to popularise green and inclusive energy, including affordable solar solutions and briquettes.

The campaigners envisage “simple solutions” complementing national efforts to conserve the environment and reduce poverty through energy alternatives that are affordable, reliable and environment-friendly and inclusive.

Mtago says that forests are burning at an alarming rate.

According to the Department of Forestry, the country loses between one and three percent of its forest every year.

“Ten tonnes of trees are needed to produce one tonne of charcoal,” he says. “This is worrisome and it only degrades the environment.”


Green solutions

For clean usage of biomass, Renama promotes energy-efficient cookstoves that halve the amount of firewood needed for cooking and emit less smoke.

The cookstoves, branded Chitetezo Mbaula, reduce pressure on forests and save up to 30 percent of household budget for energy”, says Renama resource mobilisation and advocacy manager Fahima Dassu.

“These cook stoves just complement efforts of saving trees, but we should plant and ensure more trees survive and grow,” she says.

Government has set out to plant 65 million trees this rainy season, but the downside is that almost half of them die in the first year.

To Dassu, conserving the environment through reforestation and efficient use of trees will reduce challenges women endure in search of firewood.

“They will no longer walk long distances to fetch wood as forests will be within reach,” she says na

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