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Desperate plea for briquette use to save forests

Written by  Aliko Munde
Mwachalira  lighting briquettes - Pic by Aliko Munde Mwachalira lighting briquettes - Pic by Aliko Munde

Nkhata Bay, November 22, 2018: Travelling from Mzuzu to Blantyre through either the M1 or M5 road, it is clear that northern region is greener than the other regions. 

Right from the outskirts of Mzuzu City through Chikangawa, Viphya Complex Forest Reserve and Jenda into Kahingina Forest Reserve on the boundary with central region, the north has more indigenous cover.

As soon as one finishes passing through the Kahingina forest into Kasungu District, it is a different world. Along the M1 road, one hardly sees indigenous trees unless it is graveyard.

Malawi has lost and continues to lose forests to over reliance on wood energy. Most Malawians rely on charcoal and firewood for their cooking needs.

The northern region has the least population of slightly over 1.7 million against 5.5 and 5.8 million for central and southern regions, respectively, (2008 census) hence lesser pressure on the indigenous forests.

As most hills and mountains in the south and central regions are now bear, some charcoal is imported or smuggled from neighbouring Mozambique. This is evident at Lizuzlu and Tsangano trading centres, among other areas.

To protect forests from further degradation with increasing human population now projected at around 19 million, government and other players in the environmental sector have come up with alternative sources of energy.

Among the innovations is the use of briquettes. They are made from wastes such as dry leaves, paper and anything which can be burnt.

The waste materials are compressed into briquettes that are used in place of charcoal or firewood.

Tilimbike Community Savings and Investment Promotion (Comsip) Cooperative of Group Village Head (GVH) Kafulama, in Senior Chief Kachindamoto in Dedza District is into commercial briquettes making to save trees.

The cooperative’s bookkeeper Lucy Nkhuku, 28, says the group decided to invest in briquettes to save forests from being further cut down for firewood and charcoal production.

“We set dry leaves on fire and cover them with a drum or big clay pot so that smoke does not come out until the material turns black. 

“We then collect soil, pound it to make it smooth then mix it with the burnt material and water. The burnt material should be three thirds of the mixture.

“Then we mould the material into things like tennis balls and let them dry up,” explains Nkhuku.

She adds that once the briquettes dry up, they are ready for use.

“One can use five briquettes to cook food for five hours but the stove should be in a kitchen and not in an open ground,” Nkhuku says.

“I cook dried beans, nsima and boil water for a bath with just five briquettes. I no longer have to spend much on firewood or charcoal which is expensive as compared to briquettes,” she adds.

She further explains that the briquettes are good because, unlike charcoal and firewood, they do not produce smoke which is health hazard.

Since the cooperative started selling briquettes in 2016, it has realised over K200, 000 and hopes to make more money as many households start embracing the new energy source.

“This is a plus to our income,” she says.

Brenda Mwachilira, 33, of Chioko Village in the district also salutes the new technology saying it is efficient.

“I no longer waste time walking long distances to fetch firewood. With use of briquettes, I now invest my time in other productive things like selling rice which I cultivate,” she says.

Mwachalira hails briquettes for their clean energy.

“They [briquettes] cook just as electricity stove,” she says confidently.

GVH Kafulama describes the briquettes as a solution to deforestation in the country.

“As traditional leaders, we try our best to sensitise our communities on the importance of using briquettes for cooking.

“But we are let down by Forestry Department for not enforcing law against charcoal production from indigenous trees.

“When one walks along the roads of this country he or she sees bags of charcoal. Forestry officials are not aggressive enough to enforce the law. No wonder charcoal production is still high,” Kafulama says.

A large part of Malawi’s population relies on wood fuel. Most of the people are in rural areas where there is no access to electricity.

Even most of those connected to the national electricity grid in urban areas can hardly afford to use electricity for their everyday cooking needs hence over reliance on charcoal and firewood.

But Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy, calls upon nations to stop relying on fuels that contribute to drastic changes to the earth’s climate system.

Perhaps, the affordable and efficient solution to Malawi’s problem is the briquettes because apart from solving the energy problem, they are also enhancing waste management thereby promoting environmental health.

Community Development Assistant (CDA) for Kachindamoto area, Feston Paliyani, bemoans that communities across the country are taking time to adopt briquettes despite being an efficient alternative to charcoal and firewood.

“We want households in the country to adopt the use of this new technology so that together we can help curb deforestation that contributes to climate change,” he says.

Paliyani says there is need for serious sensitization campaign to ensure that every household graduates from use of charcoal or firewood to briquettes.

Ministry of Natural Resources Energy and Mining Public Relations Officer Sangwani Phiri concurs with Paliyani saying communities need to adopt use and production of briquettes for commercial purposes.

“Briquettes are a money spinner; those engaged in this business make a lot of money,” Phiri says.

He adds that briquettes production does not call for sophisticated knowledge or technology hence the need for communities to universally adopt it.

“It is pleasing to see that our stakeholders like World Vision Malawi, ActionAid and others in the environmental sector are already teaching communities how to produce briquettes,” Phiri says.