“This time, we have to be strong, or else we will lose the battle,” says Teresa Muula, Lilongwe district forestry officer, discussing the latest deployment of the Malawi defence force into the region’s fragile forests.
For the past year, Malawi’s department of forestry has been cooperating with the army in a desperate bid to stem the illegal logging that is depleting the country’s forests at a rate of 2.8% per year.
Surging demand for charcoal in Malawi’s cities is the prime driver of deforestation here: around 54% of urban women now use this “black gold” for cooking, according to the government.
Only one in 10 Malawians are connected to the (unreliable) grid, while liquefied petroleum gas is out of reach even for many members of the emerging middle class. Charcoal, which burns more cleanly and quickly than firewood, is considered a sign of status.
Malawi has banned the production, transport and sale of charcoal unless it is sustainably sourced. But the illegal trade is booming, serviced by rural residents who scrape a living turning timber into charcoal in a highly inefficient process which wastes enormous amounts of wood.
Estimated to be worth £45m per year and to employ around 100,000 people, this shadow sector is Malawi’s third largest industry after tobacco and tea.
“We are destroying nature,” says Steven Kakhuni, chair of Mgona community charcoalmarket in Lilongwe, “but poverty is forcing us to continue”.
Under Malawi’s National Forestry Act, businesses are permitted to harvest trees if they then plant indigenous species to offset the loss. But in the 20 years since the law was passed, only one commercial licence for sustainable charcoal production has been issued.
Kawandama Hills Plantations produces small amounts of charcoal as a byproduct of their essential oil business. But sales are low: it is hard to be successful when illegal competitors source raw materials for free.
A different business line may now offer a glimmer of hope for Malawi’s forests, however. So-called “improved cook stoves”, which burn charcoal or wood more efficiently than traditional cooking fires, are gaining popularity.
According to the National Cook Stove Steering Committee, a coordinating body for officials, NGOs and other groups working on clean cook stoves in Malawi, 500,000 “clean and efficient” cook stoves are now in use. It hopes 2m Malawian homes, around 65% of all households, will adopt the device by 2020.
In villages across the country, women are being trained by NGOs like the UK’s United Purpose to make different types of energy efficient clay stoves, which they sell locally.
One beneficiary of such a project is Astina Nikina, a mother of six from Nessa village in Mulanje district, who recently bought an Aleva wood stove – a model made from clay bricks held together by an iron band – to replace her traditional three-stone fire. “A bundle of 40kg [of] firewood used to last only three days; now the same size bundle lasts two weeks,” she says.
New stoves for the city
In Lilongwe, Blantyre and other cities, a different gadget is getting people excited: a metal charcoal stove designed by US social enterprise Envirofit. The organisation says the model consumes up to 57% less fuel than a traditional charcoal stove, cooks food in half the time and produces up to 70% fewer toxic emissions.
More importantly, it says the stove is more aspirational than traditional cooking equipment and better geared to consumer needs. One local retailer who has imported more than 4,000 of them confirms his stock is selling well.
Mass distribution of efficient stoves in Malawi’s cities could ultimately prove more potent than military force as a strategy for protecting its forests, says Stella Gama, assistant director at the forestry department.
But success for these second-generation modern stoves will depend on persuading urban consumers they are worth the investment. Without subsidies, the stoves cost around £30 – a lot even for middle class Malawians.
To win a larger customer base, United Purpose is considering producing thermoelectric stoves that can charge mobile phones while cooking food. The stoves will cost £15-25, says its energy programme manager, Lloyd Archer, and trials suggest “even rural people who are not wealthy are willing to pay for them”.
That could be a crucial, as rural aspirations grow too. If Charity Gogoda, a 21-year-old from a village near Mount Mulanje, is any yardstick, demand for charcoal is only set to increase. Her greatest wish, she says, is “that my little daughter will be able to cook on charcoal when she grows up”.