Farmers Stir Clean Cooking for All – Save Forests

Farmers Stir Clean Cooking for All – Save Forests

By James Chavula

Women and children in Malawi risk of dying from smoky fumes of an everyday chore – cooking.

At least nine in 10 households cook using firewood and charcoal, shows the 2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census report. Their toxic fumes claim eight lives every minute globally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Put the smoky fireplaces marked with three stones in minute kitchens without windows, the emissions can be deadly.

Esther Chandamale from Kalichero Village, Traditional Authority Dzoole in Dowa, replaced the time-honoured stones with a portable Chitetezo cookstove she co-produced with her group to protect trees and human health.

"I no longer swallow dark smoke, soot and fumes that once tarred my kitchen walls. Cooking meals for my family always left my eyes irritated and bloodshot, as I rubbed them and coughed hard due to smoke," she explains.

Her group has moulded 3700 cookstoves since 2017.

Users say the handmade cookstoves use half the fuelwood consumed when cooking in traditional fireplaces.

"You need just three pieces of firewood to cook nsima and relish for lunch or supper. The open fires consume six to seven”, she explains.

Chitetezo cookstove reduces the times Chandamale and her neighbours raid forests for fuelwood, they say.

The group of 11, down from the founding 20, was trained by a NASFAM field officer, with support from the Irish Aid, to mould the forest savers. The trainer took clay samples for tests that confirmed it was good for the communal enterprise. 

"Later, we received moulds for making the cookstoves, which have been sold to people in our district and neighbouring districts of Kasungu, Mchinji and Ntchisi," says Willard Shuga, chairperson of the group.

To produce good quality cookstoves, the cookstove makers put wet soil in a pit for 14 days and pound it into fine particles for fashioning their offerings. They polish the final products and dry them for three weeks before they get cured in an oven. 

The cookstoves cost K1000 apiece and K800 in bulk. 

"Chitetezo emits less smoke than open fireplaces, saving households from the coughs, pneumonia and other silent health problems caused by the fumes," says the village head, who uses one.

For Chandamale, her health is almost everything because she looks after her family, crops and small business.

"Besides, I need not to cut down a whole tree because Chitetezo uses even sticks and residues from crops such as maize and pigeon peas," she explains.

This slows the decline in forest cover.

"Even branches are enough. As forests disappear, women and children need not to walk for two hours to fetch firewood," says Chandamale. 

In the tobacco-growing district forests are vanishing fast while preparing the leaf crop, Malawi's largest export for the world market, amid the rising demand for fuelwood, virgin farmland and new settlements.

"The main tragedy is that nearly all households in the country cook using firewood and charcoal," says Yamikani Dalikeni, chairperson of Kalichero Village Forest Protection Committee.

The villagers brave two-hour walk to get firewood from forested hills instead of taking care of their households, crop fields, businesses and community services.

Traditional Authority Dzoole has enacted community by-laws that ban logging, charcoal production and fires in a communal forest under the farmers' care. They include fines of up to K15 000 or a goat for those caught felling trees in the forest partly guarded by bees in six hives.

"We resolved to keep hands off the communal forest, which lost trees, so that the stumps could sprout again," Dalikeni says.

And the forest is thickening.

Village Head Kalichero joined the cookstove production group to lead by example. He has since ordered every household to use the energy-saving cookstove.

"I was concerned that the loss of trees had left crop fields gullied by racing rainwater, burying waterways in mud and silt. This affects crop harvests," he states.

NASFAM helps the group identify markets for the cookstoves, including farmers' clubs in Dowa and surrounding districts.

"So far, we dispatched hundreds to Chulu and Chamama in Kasungu, Malomo in Ntchisi and Mavwere in Mchinji," explains Fanny Majoni, NASFAM field officer for Mponela Farmers’ Association in Dowa.

After sales, the cookstove producers share the money equally. They have shared three pay-outs ranging between K20 000 and K8 000, with some money still being tallied.

"It's a slow business, but some use the money to meet their needs, including food for the lean season as well as quality seed and fertiliser. I invested K5 000 in a small business which brings K10 000 to K20 000 a month," says Chandamale.

With fewer trips to hunt firewood, she has time to sell some basic groceries in her neighbourhood.

And Kalichero is excited: "The trees saved by cookstoves slow run-offs that scrape topsoil, creating gullies where we have planted vetiver to reduce erosion.

" The trees also refresh the air we breathe out, keeping us healthy so we can concentrate on farming and other income generating activities."