Red, blue, yellow, green…but blackish. Such is an array of colours of charcoal bags travellers see on descent from Blantyre to Chikwawa.
They resemble bags of charcoal from Mozambique, but the trees going up in smoke are actually from the bare hills split by the winding road.
“This is why the trees in these hills are disappearing fast,” says Michael Muwanga, from Blantyre City as a minibus beats the bends past the bare hills.
And the charcoal sellers mince no words.
This is a gimmick to recapture customers hooked to imported charcoal.
“For five years, many motorists have been speeding past our charcoal because the city is flooded by charcoal from Mozambique. We had to do something to avoid being pushed out of business,” says a woman who has been selling charcoal in the vicinity of Thabwa Police Roadblock for 11 years.
The bags selling so close to the law enforcers—as is also happening at Zalewa in Mwanza and Nkhata Bay slopes—expose laxity in enforcement of bans on production and vending of charcoal.
Just like that, the country loses up to three percent a year, the highest deforestation rate in southern Africa.
But the desperate effort to hoodwink customers obsessed with foreign charcoal has left trees crashing to the ground in the waning forests.
A problem nurtured
When the southern half of Malawi started importing charcoal, police and forestry officials looked away.
They allowed truckloads to cross the porous borders and roadblocks without fines. In their reasoning, they saw only Mozambique’s forests being wiped out in the cross-border trade mistakenly neglected as none of Malawi’s concern.
But the emerging trade in locally produced charcoal packaged in imported sacks is wiping out forests on either side of the divide.
“It is all illegal to sell charcoal whether it is sourced locally or beyond the borders. Importation of charcoal requires a permit and a licence. We are finding measures to deal with both the selling and importation of charcoal. Perhaps our capacity is low,” says Clement Chilima, director of forestry in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining.
The Department of Forestry impounds six trucks every month, he says.
In Mwanza, the trucks hauling in the blackish import could be symptomatic of the disappearance of natural trees that once produced quality charcoal.
“This is a big problem in both countries where charcoal business remains illegal. We are in touch with our friends in Mozambique and they tell us that the cross-border transporters use fake documents,” he explains.
The Department of Forestry is not aware some seemingly imported charcoal is actually being churned out in the country’s endangered forests, according to Chilima.
“If this is happening, it is very sad. We need to stop the sale of both imported and local charcoal,” he adds.
But laxity to stop the illegal importation of imported charcoal has come back to haunt the country.
Lush forests are vanishing as charcoal made in Malawi is being sold in colourful sacks from the neighbouring country.
At Mwanza Border, trucks carrying empty sacks pour in, supplying vendors who will stop at nothing to recapture the market they lose to charcoal importers.
“Charcoal from Mozambique left locally produced charcoal hard to sell. People wanted charcoal that could burn fast and much longer,” says a Machinjiri resident who has turned to the imported sacks “to save my business”.
He buys massive bags of charcoal from the Upper Shire Valley forests—especially in Blantyre West, Balaka, Mwanza and Blantyre—and stuffs it in the smaller sacks from abroad.
His customers think it is the ‘real deal’ from Mozambique.
“This is a raw deal,” says Agnes Kwanjana who confesses buying the repackaged bags. “We switched to Mozambican charcoal because our forests produce smoky, substandard charcoal. Unfortunately, our shift has given birth to a rip-off by vendors anxious to protect their profits.”
But the traders are not just taking advantage of Malawians’ insatiable appetite for imported goods, but also rising demand for cooking energy.
Unsustainable energy mix
In an interview, Leadership for Environment and Development in Southern Africa (Lead-SE) director Professor Sostein Chiotha put the burning issue about charcoal in context.
“It is clearly a complex problem because the energy mix does not provide for clean and affordable alternatives people can use. Although the guidelines outlaw charcoal business, the unmet demand is still high. This is what is fuelling illegal trade in charcoal, regardless of the source.”
The environmental expert sees the remaining forests being burning down to charcoal as far as energy options remain narrow and the population grows.
“This creates the unmet need for charcoal which is unsustainable for both Malawi and the neighbouring countries,” he reasons.
Slowly but surely, the unsustainable affinity for this environmental unfriendly business is consuming forests as energy poverty remains unchecked.
According to Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom), just about a tenth of Malawi’s population is connected to its grid.
This means almost 90 percent of the population of about 17.7 million is left behind in terms of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty by 2030.
The seventh goal (SDG7) of the 17-point agenda for sustainable development requires governments to ensure everyone uses has affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.
But progress is slow, shows the 2018 Energy Progress Report launched in May.
“Household air pollution from the use of inefficient stoves paired with charcoal, firewood, coal and kerosene are responsible for some four million deaths a year,” reads the dashboard for SDG7.
Globally, there are almost one billion people without access to electricity and three billion lacking clean cooking energy.
They mostly rely on charcoal and firewood for cooking and heating.
Amid shrinking power generation down the Shire River, almost 97 percent of Malawians cook using charcoal and firewood.
The demand is increasing as blackouts haunts households for over 12 hours contrary to President Peter Mutharika’s promise that newly imported 75-megawatt diesel-powered generators would close the dark chapter.
Malawians, who produce charcoal in rural forests of Kunthembwe in Blantyre West, say their main market is in the commercial city.
Every morning, scores of men are seen pushing bicycles carrying massive bags of charcoal heading for townships in Blantyre where half of the households use charcoal.
As they struggle to wheel the illegal cargo across steep slopes, mile after mile, they sip water from jags tied to the oversize bags.
Forests gone for nothing
Ackim Mwale says imported charcoal poses a threat to his major source of income.
“Where I come from, making charcoal is never easy. It takes a lot of energy, risks and time. But people scramble for small bags from abroad which are costly. This is why they are being tricked by vendors,” he says.
Mwale gets K6 000 a bag. In contrast, the bags from Mozambique cost K3 500 each though they are three times smaller than those weighing down his four-year-old bicycle.
Charcoal business is endangering forests in the rural setting split by a dusty road to Mkula, the country’s largest hydropower plant.
Whirlwinds freely sweep across deforested crop fields where yield is waning.
“We have sold our trees for nothing” says Mwale. The vendors putting our charcoal in imported sacks gain almost K5 000 per bag without burning a finger.”
The charcoal producers endure long walks to source and sell charcoal.
The longer the walks in search of trees for charcoal, the closer the axes are getting to the Shire where the country generates nearly all its hydropower.
Escom blames the surge in blackouts on wanton felling of trees as water levels in the Shire are falling due to chronic drought and massive siltation.
Blantyre West legislator Peter Kumpalume backs calls for a big shift to cleaner energy to save trees and reduce diseases associated with cooking using charcoal and firewood.
The former Minister of Health states: “Deforestation in Blantyre West is very high. The strategies we adopted in the 1980s have failed to combat this illegal trade. Deforestation has kept growing year after year. What gives us confidence that the old strategies will work this time?”
To him, ending the unmet need for clean cooking energy would reduce deforestation.
He says: “We have supply in Blantyre West, the demand in Blantyre City and no security in between. To overcome this, suppress charcoal production by giving the villagers alternative income generating activities , improve law enforcement on the road to the city and reduce demand in the city by increasing access to clean cooking energy, including gas.”