Baking without using firewood is not rocket science for Sakata villagers in Zomba District.
A rocket-like sun oven has helped the village’s baking group to eliminate firewood from their business.
The flaps of the smokeless oven standing in the sun like a rocket ready for take-off comprises mirrors that trap and reflect sun rays, concentrating the heat on a glass for bakings underneath.
“The village sun oven saves our forests, lives, trees and time,” says Dorothy Chindamba, secretary of the cooperative.
The group that once consumed one tonne of firewood every month has spent a year without burning trees, thanks to the technology donated by Community Energy Malawi (CEM) in partnership with Community Energy Scotland and Community Savings and Investment Promotion (Comsip).
This has slowed the loss of forests in Malawi.
As trees vanish, most Malawians endure lengthening walks in search of firewood instead of indulging in an income-generating activity.
For the bakers of Sakata, renewable energy from the sun has become a trusted weapon in the fight to end poverty and deforestation.
Said Chindamba: “Previously, we were spending about K20 000 a month to fill an ox-cart with firewood.
“Now we use that money to buy more flour. We are no longer ruining forests, inhaling smoke into our lungs and putting ourselves at risk of dying from tuberculosis, pneumonia and other conditionals fuelled by indoor air pollution.”
The group ventured into baking on August 22 2017 because there was no bakery in the vicinity.
“At that time, we were getting mouldy bread because all bakeries were located in Zomba, almost 15 kilometres (km) away. We were the last to be served, so we saw this as an opportunity,” says Rose Nyambi, loans coordinator for the group
The group makes a profit of K124 000 a month, boosting dividends for the shareholders.
“Baking is a hot business and it has become more profitable with the sun oven because we no longer spend on firewood and medicine for smoke-related diseases. We are happy and healthy, dedicating our time to business,” says Chindamba.
The area has been stripped of natural trees as the fast-increasing population scrambles for woodfuel as well as new farmlands and housing now dotted with mango trees.
Until CEM delivered the oven in the sun in January 2020, men used to walk long distances to fetch firewood—a tedious task for them.
CEM is also piloting the technology with Chang’ombe bakery group in Kasungu to reduce the appetite for fuelwood and ramp up tree-planting.
The project has boosted the cooperative members’ capacity to sustainably manage their business enterprise and environment.
CEM energy development officer Chawezi Gondwe says: “CEM and Comsip assessed the bakery groups to select two with the capacity to take such a project which targets areas with no access to electricity.
“The project has lived up to its expectations because there is a significant reduction in the cooperative’s dependence on biomass for their bakeries, which are still learning certain things. We hope that by the end of this year, they will be 100 precent green.
“Men and women used to walk for three to four hours to find willing sellers of fuelwood.
“We wanted big logs, yet we had wiped out big trees in our villages. Only small ones were left behind.”
The decried loss of trees compels some women in the community to burn plastic carrier bags, sacks and shoes for cooking. This exposes them to cancer-causing fumes, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The United Nations health agency reports that cooking using firewood, charcoal and coal claims over 3.8 million lives globally.
“Burning plastics release stinking fumes that leave the food smelly, the cook without any appetite and our eyes red as if we smoke tobacco or Indian hemp. You can’t enjoy the foul-smelling food,” says Chindamba.
The story from the bakery is different. The group members say the oven cooks cleaner, faster and better.
“With firewood, we couldn’t meet our demand because we used to work from 6am to 6pm just to bake 84 units of buns from 50 kilogrammes of flour. The job that used to take all day now requires just 90 minutes,” says treasurer Brighton Modi.
This has removed the risk of gender-based violence and marriage breakdowns faced by women suspected of engaging in extramarital sexual affairs “because they were spending all day at the bakery”.
The group sells each unit at K800, banking some K67 000 every hour-and-a-half.
“I am grateful for the oven which has lifted us out of poverty. Clean energy technology increases the potential to give our customers the quantities and quality they desire,” Modi says.
The group has employed two youthful distributors of their bread, buns and doughnuts, saving them from the pangs of the country’s high unemployment rate.
Every year, they plant trees in bare hillsides, riverbanks and crop fields.
This year, they have planted 250 fruit trees in the homesteads of both members and non-members with support from forestry officials.
They donated 40 of the seedlings to their traditional authority, who has challenged them to produce a nursery of 1000 to be shared among all village heads.