Charcoal Diaries

Energy, rural livelihoods, natural resources

Debunking Charcoal Myths: Part 4

This next blog entry draws on my most recent data chapter, which focusses on charcoal producers. Whilst I won’t go into all the details of my analysis quite yet, some of my preliminary findings from this chapter allow me to debunk another charcoal myth:

Charcoal production is a ‘last-resort’ activity for poor, marginalised men

There is “significant gender differentiation in the collection of forest products. The roles, responsibilities and outcomes of rural livelihoods are often considerably gendered  and differences in the way that men and women value, access and use NTFPs, resources and markets is well documented in the literature (e.g. Paumgarten & Shackleton 2011; Ingram, Schure, et al. 2014; Sunderland et al. 2014).

Charcoal producers are often portrayed as poor, young, men. However, my own research has shown that under certain conditions both men and women participate in charcoal production (this paper has been submitted for publication and will hopefully be out in the near future). Amongst transporters, men typically earn higher wages than women. But, there is limited data to suggest whether men and women participate equally or achieve equitable wellbeing outcomes from charcoal production.


A charcoal producer in the Zomba region (own image)

I’m going to share some information with you, that portrays a new image of a charcoal producer: Not all producers are men.

In one of my case-study villages, I found that both men and women produced charcoal. In this particular village, the trees were within a 2 hour walk from the village, and access to the trees was considered a relatively easy hike, up over some rolling hills (rather than a challenging mountainous scramble).

In this village, I asked charcoal producers to recall how many bags of charcoal they had produced on a monthly basis, over the past year. Here are some preliminary results:


Average number of bags produced by female (n=32) and male (n=18) participants – Recalled information from the previous 12 months (50kg is a standard sized bag of charcoal in Malawi)

The recalled data indicates that on average, women continuously produced more charcoal than men. The maximum number of bags any one woman produced was 60 bags in the month of September, compared to a maximum of 28 bags by an individual male producer in July and January.

I did another exercise in the same village called a seasonal income calendar, asking producers to indicate how much, and from what activity they earned money from over the course of 12 months. I did this in separate groups of men and women. Here are some preliminary results:


Perceived seasonal variability of income for male charcoal producers


Perceived seasonal variability of income for female charcoal producers

For easy-viewing, I have grouped the activities into 8 categories:

  1. Charcoal production
  2. Charcoal transporting
  3. Non-Timber Forest product (NTFP) harvesting/selling (NTFP activities that require no capital investments and involve the collection and sale of raw materials, without processing them, e.g. wild fruits, grass, firewood)
  4. Unskilled labour (casual seasonal labour)
  5. Skilled labour (that require training e.g. carpentry, building, tailor)
  6. Agriculture (includes crops, cultivated fruits and livestock)
  7. Small enterprises (activities that require some initial capital, e.g. beer brewing, reselling fish/vegetables, mats, brick burning etc.)
  8. Misc (Football)

There were noticeable gender differences between participants.

Charcoal production provided the highest overall source of income, accounting for 26% of annual income generated by men, but almost twice as much for women, contributing 45% of annual income. Income from charcoal production was highest between May-July, which coincides with the coldest months in Zomba, my case-study region. Higher income from charcoal, specifically amongst women, also coincided with the rainy months from November to January.

Women engaged in a narrower range of IGAs than men as they did not generate an income from skilled labour, transporting charcoal or football (included under the miscellaneous category), and a smaller proportion of their income was generated from agriculture. Instead, women relied more on small enterprises (33% of annual income for women, compared to 18% for men), especially during low-charcoal production months.

So to conclude:

The data that I collected, suggests that in this particular village, women participated more than men in the production process.  Men had a larger livelihood diversification than women, as they had more opportunities (for income generation) available to them. Women were therefore considerably more dependent on charcoal production as a livelihood activity, which is observable through their higher level of participation and production rates.

The minimum daily wage in Malawi is currently about £1, yet a 50kg bag can sell for roughly £3 in the village or £6 in Zomba. The potential earnings from charcoal production is therefore comparatively colossal. The current view that only men produce charcoal is harmful to the development of improved and equitable governance of the charcoal sector, as a strong gender-dimension is unlikely to be incorporated in charcoal production policies. Given that women have fewer opportunities to generate an income than men, charcoal production is considerably more important for women when access to resources and markets is equitable. Therefore the needs and requirements of women must also be included in any charcoal-related development.





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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by and tagged , , , , , , , , .


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