It’s 6am inside Mulanje Prison, the beginning of the day as prisoners put on their white shirts and shorts.
For inmate Julius Motha, 28, this is the time to operate the biogas digester, a plastic contraption about the size of a standard fuel tanker.
It converts organic waste, such as prisoners’ faeces, to gas that powers the cooking pots for the daily meals for over 200 inmates.
The initiative put in place by United Purpose (UP), a local charity, is an attempt to control the huge loss of trees fuelled by overdependence on charcoal and firewood for cooking.
UP trained inmates and staff how to maintain the system. They told Africa Calling that life is easier now than when they had to chop wood.
About 80 percent of the entire population uses firewood for cooking, according to the census.
Deforestation is a serious problem in the country. Between 1991 and 2017, the country lost roughly 20 percent of its total forest cover due to fuel wood collection and subsistence and commercial agriculture, according to the Natural Resources Committee.
The impact has been extensive and devastating run-off which has silted hydropower systems, causing blackouts throughout the country.
More water leaching into the soil because of lack of trees also leads to less water in the fields, causing crops to fail from lack of water.
Biogas digesters were introduced to the local prison, said UP programme manager Esther Mweso, because the prisoners use a lot of wood for cooking. The charity also introduced two more digesters in Zomba and Nsanje Districts.
“We made assessments in the prisons and found out that they were using about 60 cubic metres per month. On top of that, they were also spending about K600 000 for electricity and procuring firewood,” she said.
Each digester cost them about 17 000 euros.
Helping the environment
Reducing firewood consumption has halved their bills, said George Chibwe, senior superintendent of Mulanje prison.
Currently, the biogas powers one cooking pot while the other runs on electricity. For now, they still procure firewood for backup in case there is a blackout.
Inside the kitchen, prison chefs are cooking with two big pots; one using the biogas and the other using electricity. Contrary to popular belief, there is no faecal smell either.
“During the time we’ve been using the biogas digester, we’ve improved in terms of the cooking time and it’s efficient,” said Chibwe.
“While it used to take five hours to prepare the food, it takes three hours now.”
The inmates who cook the daily meals also have noticed a difference.
“When I first came here in 2018, we were struggling to cook because we were using firewood…now, the cooking process is faster,” inmate Felix Chimombo said.
Although the biogas digester is proving to be useful, the volume of faecal matter produced by the prison per day is not enough to heat both cooking pots.
While there were 400 prisoners when the system was first installed in June last year, authorities reduced the number of the prisoners to almost half in to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Institutions like prisons buy firewood from traders, which adds to tree loss, said Tiwonge Gawa, national chairperson for the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi.
She applauded the initiative, saying similar projects will go a long way in reducing deforestation in the country.