Charcoal production and marketing as well as tree cutting for firewood and agricultural expansion are wiping out at least 30 000 hectares of forest cover in Malawi every year.
Authorities and environmentalists say this trend must be reversed if the country is to be saved from deforestation, wood supply shortages and environmental degradation that have brought in climate change-related disasters such as floods and droughts.
Yet, charcoal—an industry valued at around $8 million (K6.4 billion) annually—supports livelihoods of many Malawians both as a source of energy and income for households.
Malawi’s position as one of the least electrified countries globally at just 11 percent nationally—with 42 percent of the urban people having access and just four percent of rural dwellers connected—has pushed charcoal to become the primary source of fuel for 54 percent of urban households.
Across rural Malawi, households continue to rely almost exclusively on firewood. Meanwhile alternative cooking and heating fuels remain underdeveloped, with less than one percent of Malawian households using any alternative to firewood, charcoal or electricity for cooking and heating.
What this means is that at least in the medium-term—with Malawi’s population rising sharply amid burgeoning rural-to urban migration—the demand for charcoal and firewood will remain high and may even increase in the absence of viable alternatives.
And as the Weekend Nation investigation has shown, the control of illegal charcoal transportation and marketing appears to be a lost cause as corruption and weak enforcement capacity betrays the efforts.
What next, then, for Malawi?
Energy and environmental experts have asked government to speed up processes that will make alternative sources of energy accessible.
The experts argue, for example, that use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as a source of energy in homes can ease pressure on forests currently under assault from illegal charcoal production.
Geologist Grain Malunga says LPG would be an alternative if government can make it affordable and readily available on the market.
Leading gas supplier Afrox Malawi sells a minimum six kilogrammes at K12 000 which, according to Malunga, is on the higher side for an ordinary household.
“With only K200, one can buy charcoal that can be used for a day. It is cheap and affordable. Government should encourage the use of gas, but they should make it available in small quantities. They can even subsidise it,” he said.
Malunga says Malawi has a small percentage of people who are making charcoal, but are destroying a lot of hectares.
“Why not just employ these charcoal producers? We can give them a task to safeguard trees. Forestry Department can do that, and give them a duty to do. Also include traditional leaders in this process,” he said.
According to the National Charcoal Strategy (NCS) of 2017-2027, more than 97 percent of households in Malawi rely on illegally and unsustainably sourced biomass (charcoal and firewood) for domestic cooking and heating energy.
This has resulted in high levels of deforestation and forest degradation throughout the country.
Malawi is losing around 30 000 hectares of forests every year and the recovery pace is way below the alarming levels of destruction to charcoal production, firewood use, agriculture expansion and tobacco growing.
Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo said in an interview yesterday that her ministry is working on different sources of energy such as gas.
“Very soon we will come up with something and it will be accessible to all Malawians so that people should stop the use of charcoal,” she said, but could not give further information when pressed for specifics.