Malawi's electricity crisis-curse for environment, but source of income for many
These blackouts have been a vital source of income for many charcoal and firewood sellers due to the high demand for charcoal and wood.
Malawi: Malawi has been suffering from an electricity crisis for the past two decades, with all sectors of its economy and citizens bearing the brunt of the consequences.
Currently, the country's electricity problems have gotten worse, with daily blackouts.
These blackouts, however, have been a vital source of income for many charcoal and firewood sellers due to the high demand for charcoal and wood, which are primarily used for cooking and heating purposes, particularly among citizens who cannot afford alternative sources of energy such as solar electricity and gas stoves.
According to the 2017-2027 National Charcoal Strategy report, 97% of Malawians cook and heat with charcoal or firewood.
However, the environment has suffered as a result of the increased demand for charcoal and wood.
A journal published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) in Switzerland shows that Malawi loses 33 000 hectares of trees each year due to deforestation.
According to Global Forest Watch, Malawi lost 209 hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2021, representing a 14% decrease in forest cover since 2000 and an increase in carbon dioxide emissions of 84.5 metric tonnes.
Malawi's power outages are nothing new to the country.
According to an IEA (International Energy Agency), 2020 report, electricity access in Malawi remains poor, at only 13.4% of the Sub-Saharan regional average of 47.9%.
The Sustainable Energy for All, a United Nations-supported campaign group, says only 11% of Malawi's 19 million people have access to electricity, making the country one of the world's least electrified.
It is estimated that only 4% of Malawi's rural population has access to electricity, whereas 42% of people in urban areas have access to electricity.
As a result of this poor track record, it is not surprising that charcoal and wood are always in high demand to meet heating, cooking, and lighting needs, which has unfortunately resulted in increased indoor population and deforestation.
In Malawi, charcoal and wood are sold in a variety of locations, including roadside rest stops, local markets, and residential areas.
A 1-kilogramme bag of charcoal typically costs between 300 and 500 Kwacha (less than $1).
A 50 kg bag of charcoal costs between 10,000 and 15,000 Kwacha ($10 to $15)
Selling charcoal and firewood has become a source of income for Karen Mhango (not her real name).
Karen sells charcoal, firewood, vegetables, and fruits from a small stall. Karen, her daughter, and her mother live in Area 49, one of the poorest areas of Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe.
“Daily blackouts are beneficial to my charcoal and firewood business. Every day customers flock to my stall to buy mostly charcoal and firewood,” she explains.
I inquire if she is concerned about the extensive deforestation that occurs in order to produce charcoal and wood.
'I am concerned because deforestation contributes to climate change, which causes a lack of rainfall, but I am a single parent supporting an elderly mother. She tells me that she has no other way of making a living,” she says.
Karen declined to have her picture taken because selling charcoal and wood is illegal in Malawi.
Those found in possession of charcoal face 10 years in prison or a 5 million Kwacha fine under the new Forestry Act, which was passed in 2020.
The sale of round wood is punishable by a fine of 10 million Kwacha or 20 years in prison under Section 68 (3) (b) of the act.
These strict laws, however, will not deter many people, such as Karen, from earning a living selling charcoal and firewood in order to support themselves and their families, as they have no other option.
Karen's sentiments were shared by many of the charcoal sellers I interviewed.
Although they were concerned about the environmental damage caused by deforestation, selling charcoal and wood was their only source of income and means of survival.
The electricity crisis has greatly aided them financially, with many of them acquiring customers on a daily basis and making huge profits.
The environment will suffer if there is no daily electricity supply.
Furthermore, unless there is equal distribution of electricity in both rural and urban areas, the environment will suffer.
Massive investment is required for Malawi to overcome its electricity problems. Malawi has many natural resources that, if utilised, could help to provide electricity to its citizens.
Alternative energy sources, such as renewable energy, could be used to address the country's electricity woes because they are less expensive and better for the environment.