Charcoal Diaries

Energy, rural livelihoods, natural resources

Trip down memory lane… 6 months into the PhD

I visited Zomba for the first time in June 2013. I only went for three weeks, as a ‘scoping’ exercise to see if my PhD was feasible, but on my return I was asked to write a short blog for ASSETS. I’ve decided to re-blog the entry (with some minor edits) into my charcoal diaries because re-reading it almost two years later, everything I wrote then still stands true.

This blog represents the stage I was at 6 months into my PhD. I was having to decide (in a more or less concrete manner) what I was going to pursue for the next 3 years. Quite an intimidating task, having never stepped foot in the country I was going to be studying!

So, without further ado:

Since starting my PhD in January, I have spent the past 6 months reading endless books and journal articles on anything and everything related to Malawi and charcoal. Having spent some years living abroad, I knew that reading would only take me so far in learning about a country, in the ways that people behave, their humour and how they go about their daily lives. For this reason, I was incredibly excited at the opportunity to spend three weeks getting to grips with Malawi, and more importantly for my research, sussing out the urban fuel situation of charcoal.

Having recently completed a literature review on the laws regulating the charcoal trade, I had come to the conclusion that although they were well formed on paper, in reality they were not effectively implemented. I knew that the charcoal industry would be an interesting topic to study.

Within the first two hours of arriving in Malawi, during the drive from Blantyre to Zomba, I saw an endless stream of charcoal bags heaped onto rickety bicycles, and piled up on the side of the road. At this point I knew how significant charcoal was to urban users and the Malawian economy, and how perplexingly useless the laws and regulations in Malawi were.

During my time in Zomba, I took every and any opportunity to meet with as many people as I could, to discuss the issues related to charcoal and to also run through my research plan with them. I spoke to researchers at the Forest Research Institute of Malawi, Zomba’s District Forest Officer, retired employees of the Forest Department and rural community members. These discussions were not only highly informative, but incredibly fruitful in terms of refining my research methods.

I was travelling with a group of Masters students from Southampton University, who were carrying out individual research project, and occasionally joined them in the field. On my first visit to a rural village, I had a chat with some village natural resource management committee members (as the name suggests, they’re the people in charge of managing the village’s natural resources). I wanted to understand, a village perspective of the charcoal situation.

Within five minutes of talking, I knew how to produce charcoal, where I could find the perfect ‘charcoaling’ trees, how much I should sell it for, where I could sell it, and to whom I should sell it. Committee members personally knew charcoal producers, and they also knew that charcoal production was illegal (although they clearly stated that no one in their village produced charcoal). Interestingly however, they didn’t know that charcoal production could be done legally.

I had similar discussions in four different villages and responses were very much the same. Given that all charcoal production in Malawi is illegal, I was more than pleasantly surprised at how open to discussing charcoal people were. Everyone I spoke to encouraged me to come back and continue with my research, and insisted that I would have no problem getting people to honestly discuss their involvement in the trade. Great. 

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The research gals (photo credits go to Sophie)

In Zomba, I had a frank and open discussion with the District Forest Officer about what they’re trying to do to curb the charcoal trade. Once a week, the forest department carries out one road patrol. During these patrols, they confiscate about 50 bags of charcoal per month, with each bag weighing approximately 50kg. He lamented that due to resource restrictions, they were unable to carry out more patrols. The Forest Officer estimated that less than 20% of charcoal within Zomba city  is produced in Zomba district, the rest is produced in neighbouring Machinga district. The majority of the charcoal is sourced from  government owned forest reserves and a tiny amount from village land, increasingly from culturally significant graveyard areas.

The preliminary mode of transport for charcoal is piled high onto the back of a bicycle. The cyclists tend not to be producers, but instead act as a ‘middle man’, buying directly from producers for about 1200 Kwacha (roughly £2.20) and selling in town for 2000 Kwacha (£4). Given the illegality of charcoal production, transporters try to avoid patrols by transporting throughout the night.

Although there are small clusters of charcoal sellers in the local markets, the majority is sold directly to households. Therefore, once charcoal has entered the city, it is difficult to track. Peri-urban users are the main consumers of charcoal, however nearly all households in the town will use it due to the inconsistent electricity supply.

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Minuscule bags of charcoal sold in small markets scattered throughout Zomba city

On my final day, whilst travelling to Blantyre Airport, I decided to do a ‘rough and ready’ observational study to count the amount of charcoal sacks on the road. In total, I saw 151 large sacks of charcoal, either piled onto a bicycle, sitting on the side of the road or divided up into small grocery-bag sized bags for sale at small markets; the drive took 1 hour and 45 minutes. As my trip came to an end, this final charcoal count confirmed my beliefs of the importance of charcoal, not only as a source of urban energy but also as a significant livelihood for the countless people who produce, transport and sell it. It also highlighted how under-resourced the forest department are and how challenging a task they have.

I left Malawi with an appreciation that I could never have had from relying solely on literature. The three weeks I spent scoping were invaluable.

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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