n January 31, Weekend Nation published an undercover investigative article exposing the illegal and corrupt trade in charcoal, which has left Malawi’s forest up in smoke.
The front-page exposé has focused Malawians’ attention back on this ongoing trade which is causing enormous damage to the environment across the country.
Between 30 000 and 50 000 hectares of forest nationwide is lost each year to charcoal production.
Everyone knows that this is disastrous for the country, but as long as Malawians need charcoal for cooking, the smuggling and illegal trading will continue.
Many people know what needs to be done. Some of those ideas could lead to successful, long-term solutions.
Firstly, there needs to be sustainable management of forestry, with large-scale planting and replanting schemes to replace the trees cut for charcoal or timber.
It is good that this year there is a more serious, well-publicised tree-planting programme led by Minister of Forestry Nancy Tembo. Hopefully this will continue and expand. But there are few managed forest areas at present and even those are under pressure from illegal cutting.
Secondly, there needs to be much more emphasis on alternatives to charcoal. Presently, very few families have any other way of cooking apart from using charcoal and firewood.
Biofuels, gas and electricity will be the fuels of the future, of course, but at present a tiny fraction of Malawians use any of these for their daily cooking needs.
A small number of organisations are already working on these issues and it will be a number of years before these solutions can be scaled up enough to make a real impact at a national level.
Thirdly, there needs to be a programme to provide alternative employment for the people earning a living by producing, transporting and selling charcoal.
But in a country with few employment opportunities, that again is a long way off.
So, all these ideas are positive and necessary, but they are all long-term goals.
We need a short-term plan that can begin to reduce charcoal consumption straightaway.
We do not have the luxury of 10 or 20 years planning time to bring these permanent solutions to fruition.
The plantation manager of Dzalanyama Forest Reserve rightly states that “If we don’t act now, in five years the forests will be gone”.
One thing that can be done immediately is to give families a more efficient method of cooking than the three stones or metal mbaula used by most people in the country.
Chitetezo mbaula will reduce the amount of fuel required for cooking by as much as 44 percent.
If every family in Malawi had one of these mbaula, the amount of charcoal used per year, in Blantyre for example, would reduce from around 2.7million bags to perhaps 1.5 million.
This is still far too much, of course, but this reduction would make an enormous difference.
It would almost halve the rate of de-forestation and save nearly half the trees lost each year.
These cookstoves are also cheap and easy to make. The increased production of Chitetezo Mbaula would create more jobs.
They will even help tackle two other serious problems across Malawi. First, cooking on a chitetezo mbaula produces less smoke, reducing the harmful effects of toxic emissions on the lungs of so many women and children.
Second, they are so stable that they are less likely to spill. This could help to reduce the number of accidents caused by boiling water.
The cost of providing these to every family in the country would be a tiny percentage of the national budget.
This is not a full solution to the problem, but it would, in the short-term, help massively.
It would slow deforestation and charcoal business, giving us some extra time to scale up the more sustainable, long-term solutions.
If we do not start acting now; it will be too late.