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Malawi: A Cooking Crisis

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Florence Togama lives close to the Lujeri Tea Estate in the south of Malawi. Florence has around five different improved cookstoves, but still cooks on an open fire. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Florence Togama lives close to the Lujeri Tea Estate in the south of Malawi. Florence has around five different improved cookstoves, but still cooks on an open fire. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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In Chintheche hospital, Ms. Phirie suffers from lung problems. She has been cooking over open fires all her life. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

In Chintheche hospital, Ms. Phirie suffers from lung problems. She has been cooking over open fires all her life. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Every three days, Charity, Merica, and Rhoda walk from Mulemba village up Mulanje Mountain to collect firewood. "It is very heavy," Rhoda (left) says. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Every three days, Charity, Merica, and Rhoda walk from Mulemba village up Mulanje Mountain to collect firewood. "It is very heavy," Rhoda (left) says. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Handle Marino cycles around twelve hours from his village to Lilongwe and back to take up to 150 kilograms of charcoal to the city. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Handle Marino cycles around twelve hours from his village to Lilongwe and back to take up to 150 kilograms of charcoal to the city. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Chisommo's back and legs were badly burned when a pot of hot water fell on him. He is now being treated for burns in Kamuzu Central Hospital. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Chisommo's back and legs were badly burned when a pot of hot water fell on him. He is now being treated for burns in Kamuzu Central Hospital. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Annie Kanwara is a waitress at a roadside restaurant close to the Ministry of Information. She cooks on charcoal and says, "My customers don't like smoke." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Annie Kanwara is a waitress at a roadside restaurant close to the Ministry of Information. She cooks on charcoal and says, "My customers don't like smoke." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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The Malawi Defense Forces have been deployed to Dzalanyama forest reserve close to Lilongwe and other important reserves to protect the woods from being plundered for illegal charcoal and firewood collection. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

The Malawi Defense Forces have been deployed to Dzalanyama forest reserve close to Lilongwe and other important reserves to protect the woods from being plundered for illegal charcoal and firewood collection. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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"Many women here come to me with coughs and red eyes," Elias Banda, a self-proclaimed African healer, says. "Our herbs assist in the respiratory issues. It cleans the lungs." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

"Many women here come to me with coughs and red eyes," Elias Banda, a self-proclaimed African healer, says. "Our herbs assist in the respiratory issues. It cleans the lungs." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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After this man sells firewood to his customers on the outskirts of Lilongwe, he cycles back 100 kilometers to his village.  Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

After this man sells firewood to his customers on the outskirts of Lilongwe, he cycles back 100 kilometers to his village.  Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Felicia Willy lives alone in Mulemba village close to the Lujeri Tea Estate in southern Malawi. Her children are building an improved cookstove from clay for her. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Felicia Willy lives alone in Mulemba village close to the Lujeri Tea Estate in southern Malawi. Her children are building an improved cookstove from clay for her. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Loveness is only two years old. Her mother, 19, was boiling water when a pot fell on Loveness. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Loveness is only two years old. Her mother, 19, was boiling water when a pot fell on Loveness. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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The young men who are producing simple charcoal stoves say they can only work when "we have a zinc sheet from a roof." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

The young men who are producing simple charcoal stoves say they can only work when "we have a zinc sheet from a roof." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Women in Pitala village held a "cooking competition" to see which stove cooked more efficiently—the traditional three stone fire or an improved cookstove. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Women in Pitala village held a "cooking competition" to see which stove cooked more efficiently—the traditional three stone fire or an improved cookstove. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Saviour Gwaza, a wholesale lady, explains that the illegal charcoal business is not without risk. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Saviour Gwaza, a wholesale lady, explains that the illegal charcoal business is not without risk. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Jonah suffers from epilepsy. He fell in his mother's open fire, severely burning his face. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Jonah suffers from epilepsy. He fell in his mother's open fire, severely burning his face. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Dora Mlomba from Chirimba township in Blantyre sees many housewives come by with coughs, especially when it rains. "Then they have to cook indoors, which is very unhealthy," she says. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Dora Mlomba from Chirimba township in Blantyre sees many housewives come by with coughs, especially when it rains. "Then they have to cook indoors, which is very unhealthy," she says. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Kennedy Kaumuzeni has a small illegal charcoal stand in Chiwura. He sells charcoal to drivers on their way to the capital city. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Kennedy Kaumuzeni has a small illegal charcoal stand in Chiwura. He sells charcoal to drivers on their way to the capital city. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

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Kids under a tree in Mulema village The village chief has issued a strict law against the felling of trees, and people are encouraged to replant. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Kids under a tree in Mulema village. The village chief has issued a strict law against the felling of trees, and people are encouraged to replant. Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017. 

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Vanessa Chirwa says that when she is cooking, “The smoke is giving me headaches and pain in my eyes—it makes me cough and I feel a burning sensation in my chest." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

Vanessa Chirwa says that when she is cooking, “The smoke is giving me headaches and pain in my eyes—it makes me cough and I feel a burning sensation in my chest." Image by Nathalie Bertrams. Malawi, 2017.

In Malawi, a small country located in the southeast of Africa, 98 percent of the population relies on biomass wood fuels for the preparation of their daily meals. The production of charcoal and the collection of firewood impose a massive burden on the environment and on the health of the population. 

Malawi’s forest reserves are dwindling: an estimated 50,000 hectares of forest are lost every year to provide wood fuels. It is the cities' demand for wood fuels that is increasing illegal charcoal production in rural areas in the country—with devastating results.

In the rural areas firewood collection poses a heavy work load to women and girls, traditionally tasked with energy provision of the household. Cooking smoke from burning biomass wood fuels also poses a significant health risk to women and children.

Exposure to smoke from open fires has been identified by World Health Organization as a major public health risk. A total of 8.6 percent of all deaths in Malawi were attributed to indoor air pollution; acute respiratory infections account for 12 percent of the total causes of deaths in children under the age of five. Children are also at greater risk of being burnt by open fires.

So-called "improved cook stoves" could offer an answer—the appliances are more energy efficient through better fuel combustion, produce less smoke, and are less dangerous for children.