Charcoal: The reality. How much can you learn from a book?

by Harriet Smith, University of Southampton PhD Student

Since starting my PhD in January, I have spent the past 6 months reading endless books and journal articles on anything and everything related to Malawi and charcoal. I knew that reading would only take me so far in learning about a country, in the ways that people behave, their humour and how they go about their daily lives, as I have spent many years living abroad. For this reason, I was incredibly excited at the opportunity to spend three weeks getting to grips with Malawi, and more importantly for my research, sussing out the urban fuel situation of charcoal.

Having recently completed a literature review on the laws regulating the charcoal trade, and coming to the conclusion that although they were well formed on paper, in reality they were not effectively implemented, I knew that the charcoal industry would be an interesting topic to study.  Within the first two hours of arriving in Malawi, during the drive from Blantyre to Zomba, (in broad daylight) I saw countless bags of charcoal heaped onto rickety bicycles, travelling in the direction of Zomba. From this alone, I knew then how important charcoal was to urban users and the Malawian economy, and also how perplexingly useless the laws and regulations in Malawi are (100% of charcoal production in Malawi is illegal).

Charcoal Transport in the Zomba area (c) Miroslav Honzak

Charcoal Transport in the Zomba area (c) Miroslav Honzak

On our first village visit, I had the opportunity to informally chat to some village natural resource management committee (VNRMC) members, to get an initial idea of village-level charcoal issues, and to also see what was possible in terms of research methods. Village natural resource management committee members (as the title suggests) are those responsible of managing natural resources in the village. One would suppose that these people would be quite knowledgeable with regards to charcoal. Indeed they were: within five minutes I knew how to produce charcoal, where I could find the perfect ‘charcoaling’ trees, how much I should sell it for, where I could sell it, and to whom I should sell it. Committee members personally knew charcoal producers, and they also knew that charcoal production was illegal (although they clearly stated that no one in their village produced charcoal). Interestingly however, the VNRMC members didn’t know that charcoal production could be done legally, but if they knew how to do it, they would want to. I asked similar questions in all the villages I visited, and responses were the same. Interestingly, in one village, I asked the community forest guard whether he was aware of the legal specifications for producing charcoal. The forest guard knew, but hadn’t shared this information with the village members. The reason for not telling them, was that the village didn’t have suitable trees (indigenous miombo) on their land so there was no point.

During my time in Zomba, I took every and any opportunity to meet with as many people as I could, to discuss the issues related to charcoal and to also run through my research plan with them. I spoke to researchers at the Forest Research Institute of Malawi, Zomba’s District Forest Officer, and retired employees of the Forest Department. These discussions were not only highly informative, but incredibly fruitful in terms of refining my research methods.

In Zomba, the District Forest Office carries out one road patrol a week (due to resource restrictions, they cannot do more). During these patrols, they confiscate about 50x50kg bags of charcoal per month. Small scale, impromptu studies that they have carried out suggest that only about 15-20% of charcoal that enters Zomba Municipality is produced in the district. An estimated 80% is produced in neighbouring districts. The majority of charcoal is produced from trees on government owned forest reserves and plantations, however a small amount is sourced from village land, increasingly from graveyard areas (graveyard areas are sacred, and tend to have indigenous miombo trees growing in them). The preliminary mode of transport for charcoal is piled high onto the back of a rickety bicycle (the maximum I’ve seen is 4 bags on one bike).  The cyclists tend not to be producers, but instead act as a ‘middle man’, buying directly from producers for about 1200 Kwacha (roughly £2.20) and selling in town for 2000 Kwacha (£4). Given the illegality of charcoal production, the majority of charcoal is transported during the night. Additionally, there is no open charcoal market in Zomba, instead it is sold directly to households. Therefore, once charcoal has entered Zomba town, it is difficult to track. Peri-urban users are the main consumers of charcoal, however nearly all households in the town will use it due to the inconsistent electricity supply.

On my final day, whilst travelling to Blantyre Airport, I decided to do a ‘rough and ready’ observational study to count the amount of charcoal sacks on the road. In total, I saw 151 large sacks of charcoal, either piled onto a bicycle, sitting on the side of the road or divided up into small grocery-bag sized bags for sale at small markets; the drive took 1 hour and 45 minutes. As my trip came to an end, this final charcoal count confirmed my beliefs of the importance of charcoal, not only as a source of urban energy but also as a significant livelihood for the countless people who produce, transport and sell it. It also highlighted how under-resourced the forest department are, and how challenging a task they have. I leave Malawi with an appreciation that I could never have had from relying solely on literature. The three weeks I spent here have been invaluable.


  1. Anna says:

    Dear Harriet,

    Loved your blog on illegal charcoal production in Zomba, and have taken the liberty to share it with the (nearly) 500 members of the Malawian FaceBook Page Zomba Crew.

    If you mind, I’ll of course remove it immediately.

    Since so many (all?) people do not know how to produce charcoal legally, and the need for charcoal as a household fuel remains (pretty) constant, charcoal continues to be made and sold illegally in (and outside of) Zomba.

    The (political) discussion never gets any further than -Deforestation is bad. It never addresses the very real fuel needs of the majority of the Malawians, inform them on the legal production of charcoal, or finds an alternative solution for these needs.

    That’s why I liked your blog so much. It (hopefully) deepens the discussion…

    If you don’t mind me sharing it, thanks for your blog!, and feel free to join Zomba Crew!

    Anna (Admin)

  2. […] exercise to see if my PhD was feasible, but on my return I was asked to write a short blog for ASSETS. I’ve decided to re-blog the entry (with some minor edits) into my charcoal […]

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