In 2008 when she was 17, Agnes Thomas and her mother would walk less than a kilometre to Ntakuzi Village Forest and return with enough firewood to last the family two weeks.
Thomas, a smallholder farmer from Group Village Head Ntakuzi in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chakhaza in Dowa, would collect only dead woods, which were thoroughly dry.
“Parents had more time to tend the farm and community activities while we, the children, had enough time for our studies. This led to an improvement in our performance at school,” she recollects.
Fast forward to 2021. Thomas, now a mother of five children, hardly has time to rest. She spends hours and energy on fetching the precious sticks to keep her home fire burning.
Usually accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter, Thomas walks over five kilometres to collect firewood from their nearest bush with her nine-month-old baby strapped to her back.
Ntakuzi Village Forest has been reduced to a barren land and the locals do not seem to have any clue on how to bring its glory back.
Thomas symbolises the majority of smallholder farmers in Malawi who do not have alternative sources of energy for cooking except firewood.
Prolonged bending, carrying excessive loads, improper postures and limited time for rest have a telling effect on the health of the women as the trek for firewood is usually repeated every day of the year.
“Deforestation has had a serious socio-economic impact on women and girls in the country because they are the ones who walk long distances to fetch firewood,” says Cynthia Tewete, National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (Nasfam) Community Development Officer.
There is another aspect to this enormous physical burden, other than just missed opportunity for developmental activities. This strenuous and prolonged work takes a toll on women’s health.
Most often men migrate to urban areas for work and the women are forced to work hard to attend to all the needs of the family.
As they advance in age, women start suffering from health issues, leading, at times, to disabling effects of these illnesses.
These women have very high prevalence of genital, spinal and musculoskeletal problems.
Over the years, the government has failed to implement policy frameworks to protect smallholder farmers from the adverse effects of climate change.
This has led to increased vulnerability of smallholder agriculture to climate-related risks, and inadequate response to reduce their impact on smallholder livelihoods and food security.
Further, some farmers seem not to believe that human activities, including their agricultural practices contribute to climate change.
Realising that Malawi cannot expect smallholder-farming households to make room for developmental and creative activities, in the absence of time and energy, Nasfam has been implementing a campaign dubbed ‘Dziko Lathu, Nthaka Yathu’.
The campaign, which is being funded by Irish Aid, through the ‘Enhancing Smallholder Productivity and Returns through Climate Smart Agriculture Practices in Malawi Project’, seeks to scale up awareness, engagement and dialogue with farmers, practitioners and decision makers on the impact of climate-change and the roles that they are expected to assume.
The project further seeks to promote the adoption of climate smart agricultural practices and technologies among its members.
“Through this project, we are promoting a holistic adoption of CSA practices in which one of the key interventions is the use of improved and modern stoves.
“The idea is to project the environment and save the remaining natural forests from extinction by, among other things, promoting Chitetezo Mbaula for cooking,” Tewete said.
She added that Chitetezo Mbaula increases thermal efficiency and conservation of forests by reducing fuel wood consumption, reduction in women’s drudgery, reduction in indoor air pollution and hence smoke-related health disorders, and prevention of fire hazards.
Through the project, Nasfam has been conducting Chitetezo mbaula open days in selected districts to raise awareness among smallholder farmers about the need to embrace modern cooking technologies.
The association has also opened shops in strategic trading centres where community members can buy the stoves, which are being produced by trained farmers from Kalichero Village, within the area.
One such trading centre is Chimkoka in T/A Chakhaza in the district.
Farmer-To-Farmer secretary for Mponela Association, Sophia Malipa, said the distance to Mponela and/or Madisi to access Chitetezo Mbaula was one of the factors hindering farmers from embracing the stove.
Malipa therefore expressed optimism that the opening of shops in strategic trading centres would encourage the farmers to buy the stoves.
Village Head Kasese said firewood had become a precious commodity in the area such that sometimes families go to bed hungry because of its lack.