When the clock strikes six, Joyce Levison has two things on her mind: the long, tiresome and dangerous journey to Bunda Forests and what her two grand children will eat when she is away.
At 64, one would expect Levison to get a good rest, but until a few months ago, she would spend about eight hours every day fetching firewood in the forests. She also had to find time to cultivate her garden and do some casual labour to earn money for her upkeep.
“It was a tough life, but I had to keep working or else my grandchildren and I would starve to death. Sometimes, I would brave the scorching heat or the rains to get firewood,” she says.
About 50 metres from her house is another woman, Thanlo Delinesi, who does not know her age, but seems to be in her late 70s. She looks frail as she speaks with her hands tied at the back.
“What could we do? We knew that by going to the forests, we were risking our lives. Sometimes, the forest security guards would confiscate the wood, but we still went back because we had no alternative,” she says.
In their search for a means of survival, these women from Chalera Village in Lilongwe and Traditional Authority Chiseka would contribute to environmental degradation. Fortunately, they are now reversing the situation.
Today, Joyce and her fellow women in Chalera Womenâ€™s Club are making briquettes, a project initiated by senior lecturer of Bunda College. Dr David Mkwambisi. The briquette-making project offers alternative energy sources to fuelwood in an effort to curb climate change effects and deforestation. It is also a source of income for the women who sell some of the briquettes.
Chalera Womenâ€™s Club is a pilot project and Mkwambisi hopes the production of ecological briquettes can extend across Lilongwe to help save forests and provide a decent source of income to women.
The project, which started last year, allows the women to put their time to more productive use. Most of the women are aged between 25 and 65.
With the help of Kumudzi Eco-Learning Centre of Bunda College, the women received training in waste recycling to make briquettes which are used as an alternative to firewood and charcoal.
The cooperative now has 200 members whose lives have significantly improved with the money they earn from selling the briquettes which they use to buy food and pay school fees for their children, among other things.
“I can now afford a better lifestyle. These days, I am able to eat good food and my grandchildren can now go to school regularly. It takes a group of 10 women two hours only to make at least 200 briquettes, so we spend much less time compared to the days we used to go to the forest,” says Levison.
She says they use less than five briquettes for a dayâ€™s fuel requirement.
“So, not only are we saving time; we can also find time to do casual labour,” says Levison.
According to Mkwambisi, the women have now started a small savings account of K20 000 ($120).
Mkwambisi says the technology is not new and it has been advocated by the Department of Energy.
“We soak paper in water overnight and the women pound the paper using a mortar. The paper is then processed in a machine (developed by Lilongwe Technical College experts). Then the briquettes are dried and ready for use,” explains Mkwambisi.
He says the women are now asking for adult literacy lessons, and the Kumudzi Eco-Learning Centre has lined up more projects along their way.
“Soon they will start growing indigenous vegetables such as Luni and Bonongwe. They will also go into bee-keeping. We want to improve lives of women so that they too can adapt to the climate change and advance development in our country,” Mkwambisi says.
Although the impact of the project has not been measured, Mkwambisi says the use of paper or sawdust helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as this is the number one gas that is causing global warming.
The 2011 Malawi Government Annual Economic Report underlines the Promotion of Alternative Energy Sources Project (PAESP) whose goal is to significantly increase the countryâ€™s reliance on non-traditional fuels for cooking and heating, thereby improving the countryâ€™s environment.
“Instead of paper being burnt at the college, it is used to make the briquettes. What happens is that while the paper is being burnt, certain gases are released into the atmosphere, causing global warming. And then there is the use of sawdust, when this stays in the ground for so long, it becomes damp and releases certain gases which again contribute to climate change. The aim is to try as much as possible to reduce such gases from being emitted,” says Mkwambisi.
One of the women who is facilitating the project with Mkwambisi is 22-year-old Bunda College graduate, Linda Sankhulani, who is directly involved in training these women.
Sankhulani says use of briquettes promotes good health as opposed to firewood and charcoal.
“The project is reducing carbon emissions as the waste paper is no longer burnt but recycled into briquettes. Briquettes are also environmental friendly since they emit less greenhouse gases when burnt and are healthier for women to use,” she says.
She adds that the project is helping the women have a source of fuel even in the rainy season when firewood is scarce
“Since it has been established that women and children are the ones who suffer the most when it comes to [climate change effects]. This project is also lifting their lives as the women are further encouraged to sell the briquettes,” she added.
According to Sankhulani, climate change has resulted in erratic rains, prolonged dry spells, strong winds, heavy storms and floods, among other things.
“Many people, especially in Africa, have been affected. Malawi has not been spared as we have seen dry spells in the beginning of the 2011/2012 rainy season, erratic rainfall and variations in temperature which has resulted in health problems. The country has been affected greatly as it depends much on natural resources and agriculture.
“Women in particular have faced several challenges as a result of climate change which has led to shortage of fuel wood, lack of safe and potable water and increased incidence of health-related problems. These women were contributing to environmental degradation, but now they are helping save the environment while adapting to climate change effects for their own benefit,” she adds.
Delinesi says: “Our lives are improving for the better, soon we will know how to read and write and more importantly grow our own vegetables.”
A recent report by Oxfam reveals that climate change in Malawi is pushing people further into poverty and it is women that suffer the most.
The report, titled The Winds of Change: Climate Change, Poverty and the Environment in Malawi, says that an increase in temperatures and intense rain in Malawi over the past 40 years has led to drought and flooding, causing shorter growing seasons, poor crop yields, food shortages, hunger and the spread of diseases.
“Already women have multiple roles in Malawi as farmers, childcarers, providers of food, water and firewood, and as such with the effects of climate change, their roles have even increased, making it difficult for them,” reads part of the report.
In addition, the report says womenâ€™s weak position in Malawian society means that, they have less access to income, credit and no voice in decision-making, making it difficult for them to find other sources of income or influence action on climate change in Malawi.
The Kumudzi Eco-Learning Centre is moving towards reversing this trend.