“Development” is the predominant industry in Lilongwe. A veritable alphabet soup of NGO and aid agency acronyms adorn the doors of the many Japanese 4×4′s that congest the streets of the city – USAID, FAO, UNDP, TLC, SARRNET, ASNAPP, ICRISAT, IITA, FANRPAN, CIAT, NASFAM, etc. The hotels and guest houses mainly service the mobile populations of development professionals, conference-goers and workshop attendees. For a fascinating week I was privileged to be one of the latter, a member of a South African university IT team involved in a project in support of the development of tropical agriculture.
A few kilometres outside Lilongwe the contrast could not be starker. Lumbering 4×4′s give way to the dominant mode of transport – bicycles. Bicycles by the thousands, bicycles loaded with towers of wood and charcoal, bicycles as taxis. So while the inexorable rise in the oil price over the longer term has serious consequences for Malawi’s small formal economy as it gets priced out of the world oil market – not to mention for the operations of the 4×4-mounted NGOs et al – 85% of the population who live and sustain themselves in the rural areas could well be less affected by peak oil. However, there is a new indirect and perverse threat as indigenous woodland is replaced with Jatropha, a cash crop for biofuel, in a country already suffering severe and accelerating deforestation and destruction of biodiversity. I’ll return to the issue of deforestation later.
It is difficult to comprehend how dependent Malawi is on agriculture until you have travelled there (of course we all are ultimately; supermarkets alone are not sufficient – Bartlett’s 16th law of sustainability). Agriculture accounts for a third of GDP and 90% of exports. But dependence on agriculture is more fundamental: almost everybody is a farmer and a subsistence farmer at that. Malawi suffers from an ongoing food security crisis that affects more than five million people in the south of the country. Every scrap of land is cultivated, even the road verges in Lilongwe, to feed a burgeoning population growing at 2.39% annually. No wonder that much of the development aid is targeted at developing agriculture. While I am no agricultural expert it did bother me somewhat that the input of chemical fertiliser, which has as feedstock natural gas, to improve agricultural yields is regarded as one of the major interventions. To my mind this creates a new dependency on an imported resource, which is in any case unsustainable, and over the long term and with injudicious use, destroys the soil.
Almost as critical as the food security situation is hunger for basic energy in the rural areas. From simple observation I concluded that the average rural peasant’s day consists of cultivating, collecting and preparing food, and collecting building materials, wood and charcoal. Access to electricity, almost all of it generated by the hydro plants on the Shire River, is limited to the towns and cities and to only 7.9% of the population. Ninety percent (90%) of the country’s energy demand is met by burning wood or charcoal. And the effect of this hunger for biomass can be seen in a landscape denuded of woodland. Rural people are having to travel further and further for wood, and the production and sale of charcoal for cash is a serious problem.
At the same time small, informal brickworks dot the countryside and consume massive amounts of wood. Perhaps there is a perception that a house is only truly a house if it’s built from brick.
In summary there seem to be two drivers of deforestation:
1) energy demand: for cooking, for firing bricks, somebody else’s demand for biofuel crops
2) food cultivation.
As we climbed out of Lilongwe on the flight back to SA, the difference in vegetation cover along the border between Malawi – stripped and cultivated – and Zambia – forested – was stark, a light-dark line of contrast. Between 1990 and 2005 Malawi lost 12.7% of its forest cover. The situation is plainly unsustainable.
All this got me wondering about development projects that address rural energy needs, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. In my short week in Lilongwe and 500kms of driving to Cape Maclear and back I had seen little or no evidence of rural energy projects, although clearly there must be. And there are – as a cursory Google search will reveal.
The obvious solution to the demand for cooking fuel is solar cooking, and it seems to be getting wide attention and government support. An alternative project involves the production of briquettes from wood and paper waste and other agricultural residues, and another promotes the use and manufacture of clay stoves. Clearly a wide array of technologies, methods and resources are being employed to address the problem of basic energy production.
So, if you want to make a contribution to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation in Malawi, make a contribution to these basic energy projects, especially the solar cooking projects. They need to be scaled up drastically to make a substantive difference. Some links are provided below.
There are alternative paths too. Africans are resourceful and this young Malawian built a home-made wind turbine to power the family compound from what he had to hand from ideas that he read in a text book. You must watch this remarkable story:
Ndirande Nkhuni Biomass Briquette Programme: http://www.undp.org/energy/publications/2001/files_2001a/06_Malawi.pdf
Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi: http://www.escommw.com/distribution.php
Programme for Basic Energy and Conservation in Southern Africa (ProBEC): Malawi: http://www.probec.org/displaysection.php?czacc=&zSelectedSectionID=sec1192918473
The World Fact Book: Malawi: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mi.html
Malawi Deforestation Rates and Related Forestry Statistics: Malawi: http://rainforests.mongabay.com/deforestation/2000/Malawi.htm
Malawian Food Crisis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malawi_food_crisis
The Solar Cooking Archive Wiki: Malawi: http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Malawi