Charcoal Diaries

Energy, rural livelihoods, natural resources

Debunking charcoal myths: Charcoal is an energy for the urban poor

During my PhD fieldwork, I was fortunate to co-supervise a Masters student from Southampton. Sam Holmes spent two months with me in Malawi as part of his Master’s research, collecting household data on fuel consumption preferences in Zomba.

For this next  entry, I will be presenting a few key results from Sam’s study to debunk the next charcoal myth: Charcoal is an energy for the urban poor.

A bit of background:

Across sub-Saharan Africa charcoal has become the main domestic source of energy in urban areas. In Malawi for example, charcoal consumption increased substantially around 2003/04. Until 1998, charcoal accounted for less than 20% of energy consumed in urban areas; however, by 2004, charcoal consumption superseded that of firewood in urban areas, becoming the most commonly consumed fuel and accounting for almost 50% of consumption.

According to the energy ladder hypothesis, an increase in household income relates to a transition up the energy ladder from traditional fuels such as firewood, to modern fuel sources such as electricity. Many governmental policies in developing countries (including Malawi) follow this theorised transition and include policies that promote household electrification and subsidies. However this approach has been criticised as misguided and disjointed, as other factors such as energy preference and insurance against unreliable supply result in energy mixes as opposed to a full energy transition.

Sam’s study methodology

To give you a good idea as to what exactly Sam did, here is a very brief methodology to his data collection:

301 household surveys were conducted in Zomba over a 2 month period in 2014. The surveys were designed to elicit data on households’ wealth status and fuel consumption patterns. The wealth status of a household was based on the housing materials and size, and categorised as ‘Very low’, ‘Low’, ‘Medium‘ and ‘High’Dwelling materials can be used as indicators of a household’s living standard and, due to the common inaccuracies of self-reporting income, Sam decided that this method would be the most accurate.

To generate a representative sample of data from across Zomba, Sam used a systematic random sampling technique, stratified by administrative wards (Zomba is split into 14 different administrative wards). Sampled household quotas in each ward were proportionate to the individual ward’s population. In other words, if Ward A had twice the number of people in Ward B, Sam surveyed twice the number of people in Ward A, compared to B.

Key results

Out of the 301 surveyed households, 84% (n=254) reported having used charcoal at home.

Examining overall charcoal consumption across wealth groups (Figure 1), Results showed proportionally fewer people using charcoal in the ‘Very low‘ wealth group (66% of households), and the highest number in the ‘Low‘ wealth group (92%). However, a large amount of respondents in the ‘Medium‘ (87%) and ‘High‘ (88%) wealth groups also reported using charcoal. If you’re interested in the statistics, chi-squared analysis showed significant differences between the observed frequencies [χ²(3) =16.905, p <0.001].


Figure 1: Proportion of households across different wealth groups using charcoal

Having a more detailed look at the weekly frequency of charcoal consumption across wealth groups, the results showed a similar pattern (Figure 2). Again, the ‘Low’ income group on average consumed the most charcoal per week, and the ‘Very low’ wealth group on average consumed the least amount of charcoal. However, the differences between wealth groups were not found to be significant, in either the cold [F(3) =1.473, p = 0.223] or the hot [F(3) = 1.111, p = 0.345] season.

Average amount (kg) of charcoal consumed on a weekly basis

Average amount (kg) of charcoal consumed on a weekly basis

Extrapolating this data for the whole of Zomba’s population, the results indicate that roughly 10% of all charcoal in Zomba was consumed by the ‘Very low’ wealth group,  20% was consumed by the ‘Low’ group, another 20% was consumed by the ‘High’ wealth group and 40% was consumed by the ‘Medium’ wealth group (10% is unaccounted for, because there were insufficient data to determine the wealth status of some of the sampled households).

A brief discussion of the results

The most notable finding from the study showed that amongst the ‘Very low’ households, both the proportion of households using charcoal and the volume of charcoal used on a weekly basis was lower compared to other wealth groups. Sam attributed this finding to a combination of high costs for charcoal and greater accessibility of firewood for many poorer households. The data showed that often, the poorest households were located on the outskirts of town, where there was a greater availability of firewood, which could be collected free of charge by these peripheral households.

So to succinctly conclude:

This study demonstrates that the perception of charcoal as an inferior fuel for the urban poor is unwarranted. Charcoal is consumed by a great number of households, across a range of wealth categories. The poorest and the richest urban households consume the least amount, and it is the medium-income households who consume the most.


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This entry was posted on December 7, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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