Part of a stretch between Jenda Trading Centre and Chimaliro Forest Reserve in Kasungu is habitually lined up with men holding up to motorists bottles of natural honey.
A five-litre bucket fetches around K20,000, an amount which the traders say does not tally with the cost of buying the sweet, viscous food substance in a Zambian village about 25 kilometres from the border.
The forest reserve could provide a conducive environment for beekeeping but allowing people to encroach with ease will be another disaster. They will not only erect the beehives but also fell trees and ruin the already threatened bionetwork there.
So James Chakhala and his colleagues have to cross into Chief Mwase’s area in Zambia to buy honey and sell it along the M1 Road because the forests where they could harvest their own honey are no longer there.
The dusty, winding road to Zambian villages has become a part of the lives.
“It is not an easy thing. It means we cover a distance of 50 kilometres in total. The profit is sometimes just K1,000 but it is still a good way of storing money,” Chakhala says as a motorist buys the last bottle just before dawn, ending the vendor’s 10- hour stay along the road.
We follow him all the way to Jenda Trading Centre to see what he will use the money for. Chakhala only spends K1,000 and keeps the rest for buying the honey again.
“Tomorrow, I will be on the road again to Zambia. I will return in the evening and, the following day, I will be there along the road to sell the honey. It is a circle with little returns but I have no choice,” he complains.
The destruction of trees and other forms of vegetation in Senior Chief Kaluluma’s area in Kasungu has reminded residents here about how unsustainable their energy sources have become and the dark future they face.
Firewood and charcoal have always been the preferred sources of energy but for a society that has not so much embraced replenishment of natural products, the problems are becoming insurmountable.
“While we have no forest where to do beekeeping, the other problem is that we are running out of firewood. I don’t know what will happen next because it seems we don’t have alternatives,” Chakhala, 28, says.
Experts in the energy sector are also worried that the unsustainable sources of energy that Malawians keep sticking to will continue to have adverse effects including floods, droughts and storms.
Yet, they concede that the larger problem could not be that there are no other options but that information on the same seems not to be readily available to most people.
On top of that, some affordable and sustainable sources of energy are only available in few places, making it difficult for others to access them.
“For instance, there are people who have gas burners but no longer use them because they don’t have nearby places to refill them,” says Admore Chiumia, an energy adviser at Practical Action Malawi, an organisation that conducted a research on efficiency and cost of cooking fuels.
Of electricity, among liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), charcoal and firewood, LPG was found to be the most efficient and cost-effective.
Yet, the energy source is not easily accessible to those in need of it. Amid electricity challenges that the country is experiencing, it would have become a convenient redeemer.
“There are families that have relatives in South Africa that have very good gas cylinders which they only use for three months and revert to charcoal or firewood after running out of the gas.
“Even institutions such as Kamuzu Academy, they have to travel sometimes all the way from Kasungu to Lilongwe to refill the gas cylinders. These are some of the problems in terms of supply of this gas,” Chiumia explains.
In essence, the study by Practical Action—supported by Protecting Ecosystems and Restoring Forests in Malawi (Perform), a project funded by Usaid—was incited by the decreasing size of forests due to high demand of biomass as a source of energy for cooking purposes.
In rural settings such as Lojwa where Chakhala comes from, cooking and heating is mostly done using firewood while urban households mostly use charcoal and electricity.
“We have heard about gas for cooking but it is nowhere near us. The little trees that are sprouting where we cut them could be saved and, perhaps, even if it may take years, we will one day be keeping bees right here. We will no longer be cycling to Zambia for honey,” he states with positivity.
While the country seems to be making strides in reforestation through annual tree-planting exercises, the results are long term.
Already, the survival rates are also not impressive, according to assessments of the progress from years back when the exercise became a ‘formal’ undertaking.
Director of Forestry, Clement Chilima, also agrees that availability and affordability of gas is ideal for replacing charcoal use which is depleting forests.
“We also need to do awareness so that every Malawian is convinced that gas is the way to go. We now know that gas is cheaper, cleaner and is quicker when you compare it with charcoal,” Chilima states.
His department has on several occasions come under fire for failing to control the production of charcoal despite having in place a framework designed for the same.
Along main roads of Malawi, sacks of the energy source abound. At roadblocks, they easily pass through in the presence of forestry officials stationed to act in time.
And the National Charcoal Strategy, a 10-year action agenda to make cooking and heating more sustainable in Malawi despite the growing demand on biomass fuels, seems to be failing in dealing with illegal charcoal.
However, Chilima hopes that the strategy, which was launched last year, will be propped up by this study that has found LPG more efficient and sustainable.
He explains: “Of course, there are other things that we need to do. We have to do law enforcement so that illegal charcoal does not compete with legal charcoal. There are other pillars like electricity which have to be more available.”
Chilima further says his department and that of energy, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority and the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority need to be on their feet to ensure gas is optimally available to Malawians.
He acknowledges the limitations in the struggle.
These are levies and taxes imposed on gas which, if removed, will make it cheaper and more accessible to the majority of Malawians, Chilima wishes.
“We would like to see distributors of gas setting up more access points where people can find gas and I think government has a role to make sure distribution challenges are addressed,” he says.
The usual song that charcoal is degrading the environment with bare hills and other natural landscapes as the most imminent points of reference worries the forestry director.
Yet, the tragedy of most people trapped in the cycle of unsustainable energy services is a global one.
According to the United Nations, three billion people lack access to affordable, modern energy services for cooking, heating and productive uses while more than 1.5 billion do not have access to electricity, and a billion more depend on unreliable power grids.
“Smoke from polluting and inefficient cooking, lighting and heating devices kills nearly two million people every year, primarily women and children,” UN states.
And efforts to address such problems are within the larger scope of the global agenda.
Locally, in the face of increasing depletion of forests, Perform Chief of Party, Ramzy Kanaan, also sees the development of alternative sources of energy as the new affirmative direction.
He cites solar energy as one important aspect which is still only limited to lighting and charging phones among others.
“But there should be replacements or alternatives for charcoal. There are cookstoves that use just one stick or where they were using half a kilogramme of charcoal, they use only a third of that quantity,” Kanaan says.
While he looks at LPG as the most efficient and effective sources of energy, he is cautious to endorse it as the only saviour.
Kanaan appreciates that the cost of gas and its apparatuses could be prohibitive to other people despite that it appears the most effective and efficient cooking and heating source.
“Our expectation is that everyone in Malawi switches from charcoal to LPG but there are some people who have improved charcoal cookstoves and some people should switch to electricity,” he states.
Chakhala and his fellow honey vendors neither have the cookstoves nor the gas burners. However, they admire them and wish they would conveniently access them.
The long, winding cycles they make to Chief Mwase in Zambia will be over in the course of time as they will have forests where to erect their beehives.
They will even have sustainable sources of energy to keep their households going in the midst of diminishing amounts of charcoal and firewood.