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Published on 8 March 2022

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 is having a harmful effect on local communities as well as on the environment. Cutting down trees to produce fuels such as charcoal is leading to deforestation, which degrades the soil, impacting those who farm nearby as well as being harmful to the health of those burning 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. Sadly, many trees in the forests around Olive’s home have been cleared to make charcoal.

I am asthmatic and struggled when burning firewood. Every time I go to the hospital, I am advised to stay away from smoke.

- Olive.

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 and previously rice husks would be thrown away. However, in 2020, Christian Aid was able to provide the group with a machine that could turn rice husks into briquettes that could be used as fuel.

To make the briquettes, the women mix three 50 kg bags of rice husks with just one bag of wood shavings then place the mix into a bucket and pour them into the machine, which then grinds the mix and produces briquettes. In this way, the women have the ability to produce just over 2,000kgs of briquettes a month. The machine also has a decarboniser which removes the carbon from the smoke, helping to make the briquettes a cleaner, alternative source of fuel to charcoal.

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Mathews Malata/Christian Aid. Credit: The Hara women’s group’s briquette making machine in action.
Briquette making machine in action.

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 the day. The group sell their briquettes within their own villages in Karonga and use them themselves for cooking at home.

“The briquettes are so good and have helped us a lot. We no longer inhale smoke that causes 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 also linked the group up with a local bank to help them acquire a low-interest loan to help them develop their business.

The group have spread the word by advertising through a local radio station and have also given cooking demonstrations to schools and hospitals who are now buying the briquettes from the group.

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Olive (right) helps to prepare briquettes for weighing. Credit: Mathews Malata/Christian Aid.
Olive helps to prepare briquettes for weighing

From briquette sales the group have managed to save the equivalent of just over €7,000. As Olive explains, the income she earns through the business has opened opportunities for her and her family.

“Selling the briquettes helps us to raise school fees for our children. We can also now afford good food such as meat which will improve our health,” she says.

But the briquettes are also helping those who use them in other ways. The task of sourcing wood to cut down and burn as charcoal for use at home is a task that typically falls to the female members of the household who get up in the early hours of the morning and trek for long periods alone or in small groups. But as Olive explains, she and other women who now use the briquettes are no longer facing that burden.

“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, bring matches and light them to cook or prepare bath water for our husbands and children and then we are done,” Olive concludes.

Help us continue to support women like Olive to tackle poverty