Smoky kitchens are a common sight in Karonga district in Malawi’s northern region. So too are bags of charcoal which is used as fuel for cooking. But the production of charcoal has harmful effects on both local communities and on the environment. Cutting down trees to produce charcoal is leading to deforestation, which degrades the soil and therefore impacts those who farm nearby. Moreover, using charcoal is also harmful for those who burn it.
“Collecting firewood destroys the environment, which is wrong. The trees help to protect our soil from erosion. Losing our trees has led to poor harvests in our area,” says 51-year-old Olive Ngwira who lives in one of Karonga’s villages.
“I am asthmatic and struggled when burning firewood. Every time I go to the hospital, I am advised to stay away from smoke,” she adds.
To tackle these health and environmental problems, Christian Aid’s EU-funded Breaking the Barrier’s programme helped the Hara women’s group, which Olive is a member of, to find a way to boost their income as well as benefit from an alternative clean energy source.
Hara, from which the women’s group take their name, is a rice growing area in Karonga district. Rice husks used to be thrown away until 2020, when Christian Aid provided the group with a machine that turned rice husks into briquettes which could be used as fuel.
To make the briquettes, the women mix three 50 kg bags of rice husks with one bag of wood shavings then pour the mix into the machine, which grinds it and produces briquettes. In this way, they can produce over 2,000 kgs of briquettes a month. The machine also has a decarboniser which removes the carbon dioxide from the smoke, making the briquettes a cleaner, alternative source of fuel compared to charcoal.
In addition, the briquettes are affordable, costing just 150 Malawian Kwacha (€0.15) per kilo which is enough for a family of six to be able to cook for an entire day.
The group sells their briquettes in their villages in the Karonga district and uses them for cooking at home. “The briquettes are so good and have helped us a lot. We no longer inhale smoke that caused us to cough. I can now cook cleanly without worrying. They also help us to protect our environment so that people do not cut down trees for charcoal,” Olive said.
As well as providing them with training in business management and marketing skills, Christian Aid helped Hara women’s group acquire a low interest loan to develop their business.
The group has managed to save the equivalent of €7,000 from briquettes’ sales. As Olive explains, the income she earns through the business has opened opportunities for her and her family.
“Selling the briquettes helps us to pay the school fees for our children. Now we can also afford good food such as meat which will improve our health,” she says.
The briquettes also reduced the need for women to collect firewood. The task of sourcing wood to cut down and burn as charcoal typically falls to women who get up in the early hours of the morning and trek for long distances.
“We had been struggling because we had always been forced to hike into the mountains to search for firewood and break our backs to carry it back with us,” Olive says,
“But with the briquettes we just carry them in our bags, and light them to cook or prepare bath water for our husbands and children and then we are done,” Olive concludes.
As seen with this project, empowering women is key to work towards more gender-responsive climate solutions that address structural inequalities, while also pursuing the transition to a greener economy.