Fighting environmental degradation through mbaula
At first, before community members wiped Neno’s Lisungwi Forest clean, Hellen Phiri’s main worry was cool weather, even when it was summer.
Fresh air from the forest nearby meant the sting of strong rays from the sun was incapacitated, and community members could be seen basking in the summer sun at noon.
“This area used to be cool, in terms of the weather, and firewood was in good supply, thanks to the natural forest that surrounded Lusungwi Court, Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation depot and the village headman’s court.
“But human settlement, powered by the population boom that has affected the entire country, meant natural resources were being depleted at a faster rate than they could be sustained. Today, as I am speaking, forests have been depleted due to charcoal–making and we, as women, have to cover long distances to find wood for cooking,” Phiri, 57, says.
For some time, Malawi’s forests have been in danger of depletion, including in the Capital, Lilongwe, where, ideally, security – for people and natural resources— is supposed to be tight.
In the case of Lilongwe City, this has affected, among other things, the guarantee of safe water supplied to residents.
As recently as 1994, when political pluralism was re-introduced in Malawi, Lilongwe used to enjoy a stable supply of water, courtesy of sources such as Lilongwe River, which meanders from Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, one of the largest and oldest forest reserves in Malawi, to the western side of the Capital City.
In other words, Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is a catchment area for Lilongwe River — that is, if it can still be called a catchment area, for the wanton cutting down of trees has seen Lilongwe River lose its status as a ‘steady’ source of water.
At the heart of destructive practices, according to government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi, are people who do not value nature, “despite the government’s best efforts to help people understand the role of forests in national development”.
In the case of Lilongwe, according to Environmental Sustainability in Malawi Initiative National Coordinator, Emmanuel Mtambalika, those behind the destruction are shrewd businesspeople, transporters and criminal syndicates that produce the charcoal in the forest as well as middlemen and small-scale charcoal peddlers who are slowly shaving the reserve bare.
“So, the destruction they are perpetuating has affected rainfall patterns and made the area dry, causing a significant drop of water levels in Lilongwe River,” he says.
This, he says, has affected water levels in the strategic Kamuzu dams 1 and 2.
“At the heart of the destruction is the issue of charcoal burning,” says Mtambalika, suggesting that, for Malawi to stop the destruction that is taking place on our watch, interventions, in the form of “innovations that promote sustainable management of the environment”, have to be introduced.
More so when power outages have become a way of life in Malawi.
The destruction of trees along river banks— including the banks of Shire River— means silt that was supposed to be controlled by trees finds its way into rivers without any form of resistance.
And yet, according to a brochure of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, rivers were supposed “to control problems such as siltation”.
Siltation is one of the issues said to be affecting hydro-electric power generation in Malawi, as a myriad press statements issued, over the years, by the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi— before Electricity Generation Company took over— can attest.
Even though, by 2014, only 8 per cent of Malawians were benefiting from access to hydro-electric power, power outages mean more pressure on forests, that turn from green to black when transformed to charcoal.
Of course, local organisations such as Powered By Nature have— after realising the current challenges in expanding national hydro-electric power generation and supply capacity to suit Malawi’s energy demands, as well as society’s repugnance at the slow pace of the harrowing search for viable alternatives— intervened by offering energy solutions that can suit the needs of Malawians.
In Thyolo, such projects have helped communities reduce their dependency on wood resources.
One of the interventions is the introduction of cook stoves of different kinds that dramatically reduce the needed amounts of firewood, charcoal or briquettes, among others.
Again, local firms such as Alpha Agency have come in to offer other solutions. Alpha Agency, which has teamed up with Capital Oil Refining Industries (Cori) and United Purpose to help preserve the environment through Chitetezo Mbaula Project, has been working with community members in Blantyre and other districts to help them appreciate that there is life beyond hydro-electric power supply.
One of the directors at Alpha Agency, Ausa Kamanga, says, for example, that they have embarked on Cook-stove Challenge initiative to address environmental issues that haunt the nation.
Kamanga says environmental sustainability refers to the rate of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely.
“If they cannot be continued indefinitely, then they are not sustainable. To kick start the campaign, Alpha Agency organised a fashion for change on October 7 with an aim of advocating environmental sustainability issues.
“We involved United Purpose, formerly known as Concern Universal, because we wanted many organisations to get involved by buying Chitetezo mbaula to be donated to women who cook using firewood and have no substitute— especially those who cannot afford to buy Chitetezo mbaula,” Kamanga says.
Kamanga says Chitetezo Mbaula is ideal for safeguarding the environment, especially now, when some forests have been wiped clean.
“It saves 40 percent of firewood use. Therefore, it helps in ending deforestation unlike using charcoal. Once the mbaula catches heat, it holds it for longer periods and air is not polluted as compared to the traditional three stone stove which has three outlets,” Kamanga says.
Kamanga says the project has received support from Capital Oil Refining Industries (Cori) manufacturers of Kukoma Cooking Oil, who bought and donated 3,300 mbaulas to be donated to vulnerable women in all regions of Malawi.
“The beneficiaries are chosen by traditional authorities. So far, we have donated 426 Chitetezo Mbaula in Ndirande, Zingwangwa, Chilobwe and Machinjiri townships and, when we are done with the Southern Region, we are heading to the Central then Northern regions,” Kamanga says.
According to Alpha Agency, Kukoma has spent close to K5 million on the Cook-stove Challenge initiative.
“Chitetezo Mbaula goes at K1, 000 each and branding attracts an extra cost. It all goes down to the line that visibility matters most and community members have to know the organisations that are taking part in the Cook-stove Challenge organised by Alpha Agency so we had to brand it,” Kamanga says.
Kamanga says the project is important because, through it, they are reaching out to different individuals and the corporate sector in a bid to involve them by making them sensitive to environmental sustainability issues.
“As such they need to take part by buying Chitetezo Mbaula. At the end of the day, we are all saving energy and the future generation will benefit from it,” she adds.
One of Cori’s representatives, Violet Kapola, says they decided to help because it is important to protect the environment.
“Kukoma is doing a campaign aimed at preserving the environment by donating Mbaula supplied by United Purpose, formerly Concern Universal, to underprivileged women in rural area to enable them use less firewood,” Kapola says.
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