In Malawi, the battle over trees pits the poor population against the government

Apr 182011

Editor note: Knight Fellow Edem Djokotoe discusses contrasting philosophies between a government bent on prosecuting the charcoal industry and a rural population dependent on its profits.

Two weeks after he returned from the UN climate change conference in December, Malawi’s energy minister, Grain Malunga, made a controversial public pronouncement: “Arrest all charcoal sellers.”

Prosecuting them, he argued, would save the country from the devastating effects of deforestation and deter others from chopping down trees for charcoal. His comments caused considerable consternation in a country where 93 percent of the urban population uses charcoal and where a government rural electrification program has not borne much fruit. In spite of the flak he received from an irate public, Malunga said arresting charcoal sellers under the Forestry Act had more to do with the environment than with punishing poor people.

“When it comes to the economics of energy, electricity is a lot cheaper than charcoal,” Malunga said. He did not cite any figures to support his claim and his statements were reported at face value in the national press—like those of other ministers and high-ranking government officials.

Malunga’s statements made page one in The Nation on Christmas Eve, 2010. I made a cutting of the report and filed it for a month, waiting to see if anyone, including the reporter who wrote it, would consider going beneath the surface to probe the issue.

It didn’t happen. On January 27th, I sat with Weekend Nation editor George Kasakula, Jacob Jimu and reporter Bobby Kabango, showed them the report and told them why I felt the real story of charcoal had not been told. I suggested that the onus was on the paper to research the subject further against the backdrop of the demand and supply of energy in Malawi.

By the end of the meeting, they agreed that indeed it was a story worth pursuing and reporting as a three-part series for the Weekend Nation. Research took young Bobby Kabango to villages in central Malawi in the southern part of the country, where boys as young as 10 are dropping out of school to get involved in the business. He discovered that school enrollment figures had dropped sharply in areas where charcoal production was a way of life.

Said Aubrey Jingo, a teacher at Mokhotho Primary School in Ntcheu, "A lot of the girls here get married before they reach Standard Eight. They are attracted to the money the charcoal makers have and feel education is not really important as long as they have men to look after them." He said although school authorities had tried to convince parents to keep their children in school, "the parents say poverty and the lack of opportunity is forcing children to drop out of school to make money from the charcoal business."

Young men in the southern Mwanza district say persistent drought drove them from farming into the charcoal business. Paul Kadewere, who is 18, says it’s the only way he can put his younger brother through school. Another charcoal maker, 25-year-old Jafali, said if he found a less demanding occupation, he would gladly give up the business. “We have heard the president promise to give youths loans to start business… I would open a grocery shop,” he said. Despite the physical effort, Jafali and others only get about US$3.25 for a 110-pound bag of charcoal. Bribes at roadblocks, as well as market taxes, push up the price at the point of retail four times.

Malawi loses more than 123,000 acres of forest every year, the highest deforestation rate in the region. Local forestry experts say it takes nine tons of wood to make one ton of charcoal. Government estimates that only about six-percent of the 13-million people in Malawi have access to electricity, which leaves the large majority of the urban population using up 154,000 tons of charcoal per year.

Forestry experts Kambewa and Bennet Mataya argue the problem of charcoal in Malawi is that trees are not being planted at the same rate as they are being cut. The thing is, charcoal is potentially a renewable forest resource. Kambewa and Mataya say the charcoal business could earn the government about USD $39 million, with VAT on the commodity bringing in more than USD $6.5 million annually.

The figures gave us a basis to evaluate how much more costly charcoal is in comparison with electricity. For a start, Malawi’s power utility company, Escom, generates a total of 282.5 megawatts per annum, which falls short of a national demand of 347 megawatts. Last year, Malawi recorded 63 days of power outages, making it one of the worst energy-efficient countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inefficiency and corruption are depriving even those who pay to be connected to the national grid from getting access to power. People like Caroline Malemia, who has receipts showing she paid USD $177 to have power connected to her home in 2009. Two years later she is still waiting, but says others in her neighborhood who paid about USD $65 under the table had power connected within 24 hours.

The answer is solar energy, says Riaz Aziz, director of Solar Charge Malawi. He says, “Using solar energy is the main solution to rural electrification. If we think of using hydro-electric power, then we should forget about giving light to rural areas.”

Aziz’s company has invested USD $431,000 in a project with the Malawian government to electrify rural areas using solar energy. But the cost of harnessing the awesome power of the sun is way beyond the reach of the average Malawian, our research revealed. It costs USD $3,300 on average to power a house with 14 light bulbs, a TV set and a radio.

Getting all the information that went into the Weekend Nation’s three-part series on charcoal and energy took young Bobby no less than two and a half weeks. Working with Jacob to edit and assemble it took another week. But in the end, it was worth the effort because many of the journalists in the newsroom who read the final report said it was a job well done. The CEO, Mrs. Mbumba Achuthan and the Editor-in-Chief, Alfred Ntonga, said they learned things about the charcoal business in Malawi they didn’t know before, just from reading Bobby Kabango’s report.