Dedza, Zomba and other mountains are not what they used to be. They once adorned what looked like carpets of green from a distance. The carpets covered these mountains so thoroughly that not a single piece of rock could be seen on them, a far cry from the bald features these mountains now are.
One of the culprits of the deforestation this country has suffered is charcoal burning (the correct term is gasifying rather than burning). All over Malawi, people have felled trees and converted them into charcoal in a happy-go-lucky fashion.
The charcoal burners are indeed doing a great disservice to this nation, but if truth be told, they have accomplices in those of us who are ardent users of charcoal. It is because of the ready market for the commodity that people go to great lengths to find wood and subject it to the gasification process to make charcoal. On any road leading into any of our towns, one meets hordes of men pushing bicycles heavily burdened with the ‘black gold’. This is particularly so in the early hours of the day.
I have, on a number of occasions, tried to persuade people to move away from the use of charcoal.
“We do not have an alternative!” is the response I usually get. “What else can we use for our cooking if we do not buy charcoal?”
The truth is that there are alternatives, but people are not willing to migrate to them because of preconceived beliefs about them. I will discuss the charcoal user first then later the charcoal supplier.
True, not everybody has access to electricity and, therefore, that cannot be a feasible alternative to charcoal. Even in our urban centres we have great numbers of people that are not connected to the grid. Use of electricity for cooking is probably still some way off at the moment.
However, gas can be accessed by all and sundry. Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) has been on a campaign to convince us that the use of liquid petroleum gas is cheaper than using charcoal.
I have not subjected the two to economic analysis and cannot vouch for this claim. What I do know, however, is that the take up of gas is nowhere near where it should or can be. When there is an exodus to gas (I believe it is a question of when and not if), the gas providers will position themselves appropriately to meet the rising demand. In no time, supply will catch up with and probably even outstrip demand, pushing prices further down.
The sacrifice that consumers have to make is the purchase of the gas burner. When you consider the benefits of using gas in the medium to long term, the sacrifice is well worth it.
Some maintain that gas cookers are a potential fire hazard as the house can go up in flames if the gas is left unclosed. Exercising a little care will put this fear to rest. Those of us who have running water in our homes know that with a little practice, taps are always tightly closed to avoid the home getting flooded and incurring huge, unnecessary water bills. Somebody in the home can be assigned the task of always inspecting taps before going to bed. The same arrangement can be made with the gas cooker (or gas cookers if a household has more than one).
Charcoal burners can go into the production and selling of other merchandise than charcoal. Easier said than done, someone no doubt says and they could be right.
Consider this; each time I am driving into Lilongwe from the Dedza direction, I see not just charcoal loaded bicycles, but also many carrying cassava or sweet potatoes. I do not think Lilongwe is saturated with cassava or sweet potatoes to the point where it cannot take any additional ones. Some of the charcoal burners can switch to these and similar commodities.
Experts argue that if instead of razing the community forests in the rural areas, efforts were made to conserve them, people would go into bee keeping, a business which is probably more profitable than burning charcoal. I went to Mponela in June. Coming back from there I was pleasantly surprised to see a sizeable forest with natural trees in a certain village along the M1 road. Within the forest were a number of bee hives. This, I am sure, can be replicated in a number of villages, resulting in a good number of people leaving their charcoal business.
We need to continue searching within our communities for viable alternatives to charcoal use and charcoal business if we care about the environment.