Tales of charcoal traders

Malawi is grappling with charcoal trade as demand for the product has hit all-time high due to current power outages.  More than 95 percent of urban households use charcoal for cooking when they have no electricity supply. But sadly, a majority of charcoal producers and traders still languish in poverty. Why is this so? Our Reporter BOBBY KABANGO met some of the charcoal traders and producers in Ntcheu and Mwanza and they share their story.

A trader (in blue overalls) stacks bags, each the size of a man, ready for sale

Zione, a 38-year-old charcoal dealer says a forest cleared for charcoal is a silent and desolate place.

“There are no birds or other wildlife, just a barren, dried out landscape,” she says as she points at a small mountain that has been cleared of trees.

It’s something Zione knows well.

As a charcoal trader she is driven by money. She says in the past she never paid attention to things like wildlife or forests.

“All I wanted was charcoal. I would go into the forest to get the best charcoal. I would watch and smile as producers cut every tree they could find, no matter the size,” says Zione.

Illegal trade in charcoal is a way of life for poor Malawians

Charcoal producers in Neno and Ntcheu districts still use a traditional kiln—piling a mound of earth around a stick frame covering the wood—to produce the charred coal.

Deforestation is rampant here, as the charcoal business is seen by many as the most viable due to high demand.

Estimates show that about 95 percent of urban households in Blantyre,  Zomba and other surrounding districts use charcoal as their primary fuel due to erratic power supply.

The country consumes about 154 000 tons of charcoal per year, the Department of Forestry estimates.

A drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe along Zalewa Road, offers a vivid example of that growing demand.  Hundreds of bags, each the size of a man, are stacked on the black turned ground.

“Charcoal is a good business,” Zione says, because come rain or sunshine she makes sales.

Zione and some producers walk about 40 kilometres from Neno to the Malawi border with Mozambique, where patches of forest still exist to source the product.

It’s here on the Malawi and Mozambique border where I met Zione.

Producers—men and women—sleep by the fireside in open camps. They survive on very little supplies.

Equipped myself with empty sacks, I posed as a charcoal dealer to infiltrate the group.

Zione, who had refused to reveal her real name, says she started the business in 2003.

“I dropped out of school in Form Two when I was 20. There was no one to pay school fees, so I could not do otherwise since I had responsibilities such as taking care of my siblings I went into charcoal business,” she recalls.

This year, she has clocked 15 years in the business.

“Before this business, I was selling vegetables but it never worked, others convinced me to try charcoal. So I started by producing charcoal. I was selling it to traders who would come here to buy on wholesale. They are the ones who were transporting charcoal to Blantyre.

“At the time, a bag was going at K200 and in Blantyre was selling at K500. But after a while I realised that I was losing out so I started transporting it and selling it in Blantyre myself,” she explains.


Dirty business

But the journey is not all rosy because charcoal is illegal.

So the dealers have to endure a lot of hardship to transport the charcoal from Ntcheu, Neno, Mwanza and Balaka districts to markets in Blantyre.

The dealers told Weekend Investigates that they spend most of the money bribing State officials especially staff from the Forestry Department and police.

For instance, Zione recounts how she was arrested by police officers in Chileka and had her charcoal bags confiscated.

“I was transporting 20 bags. And there were 10 of us. We had charcoal from Ntcheu and we were going to Blantyre. At the time it was difficult to pass through Zalewa Police Roadblock.

“So we smuggled the bags using the Kholombidzo route. The road was bumpy, narrow, and steep, and had sharp bends. However, we were still caught at Lirangwe. Bribing the officers was the only solution. But despite taking our money they arrested us and confisticated the charcoal,” she recalls.

Zione says the traders were taken to Chileka Police Unit in Blantyre where they spent two nights in a police cell before they were released.


On the market

End users buy the product from makeshift charcoal markets that have sprout up all over the city.

There are over ten charcoal markets in Blantyre at Khama in Machinjiri, Chisangalalo in Manase, Bangwe, Kwale, Zingwangwa, Chemusa, Mbayani and Chirimba.

When this reporter arrived at Chisangalalo at 4 pm, two truckloads of charcoal were being offloaded. Each truck carried about 250 bags.

Charcoal traders dashed to pay a market fee of K150 per bag to the market chairperson.

As the chairperson pockets about K75 000, he allows the 500 bags to be offloaded.

As it starts to rain, traders run for cover in a makeshift and dilapidated shack. No trader abandons the charcoal bags for fear of getting robbed.

Here, traders sell the charcoal to vendors, mostly women, who buy the product on wholesale and sell it on retail for as low as K200 a kg.

One of the vendors is Elena Bamusi from Manase Township.

“It is not easy doing charcoal business,” she says. “This is how we survive by selling charcoal. Life is tough.  Bamusi has a month-old baby and is a widow.

“It is only charcoal that is sustaining my family. I have been buying charcoal on wholesale and repackaging it into smaller plastic bags. I have been doing this for years,” she says.

But Bamusi’s business is on the verge of collapsing because of unsteady supply of charcoal.

“There is a huge shortage of charcoal. Malawi charcoal is of poor quality so some people are importing tsanya charcoal from Mozambique. I now fear for my business as my charcoal is not selling as it used to,” explains Bamusi.

She attributes low quality of locally-sourced charcoal to depletion of natural forest in the country.

“Tsanya from Mozambique is better, you cannot spend a night in the market. Even the price is so good that a 50 kg bag is going at K10 000 compared to K6 500 for locally-produced charcoal,” said Bamusi.

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