By Christie Kang’ombe
In Malawi, access to electricity is very low and confined to urban areas. Firewood and charcoal provide 90 percent of domestic energy requirements.
But researchers are experimenting with stoves that may some day burn bio-ethanol from cassava waste. That could help save trees, lower emissions that cause climate change and reduce the fumes from millions of tons of firewood that threaten human health, especially the health of women and children.
Although deforestation and land degradation are well-known, the charcoal and firewood consumption that causes them is still on the rise. Ninety-five percent of homes use wood or charcoal for cooking in a three-stone fireplace, according to the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture. Although the government restricts the sale of wood and charcoal without a license, selling both is common.
The use of charcoal is more common in Malawi’s major towns, even though its production and sale are illegal. People in rural areas produce many bags of charcoal which are transported to the towns. It requires a considerable number of trees to produce one bag.
Robert Mkandawiri, a researcher from the Malawi University of Science and Technology, is researching how to best produce bio-ethanol from cassava waste.
The project is coordinated and financed by the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resource’s Capacity Building for Managing Climate Change (CABMACC) programme.
Mkandawiri’s team introduced the stoves to communities that process cassava. Ethanol can be extracted from cassava or other crops such as sugarcane. The hope is that eventually ethanol that is produced from cassava waste will be used to power the stoves.
For now, there is no direct use of ethanol from cassava waste by the commercial ethanol consumers, Mkandawire said. That’s why Ethco, a Dwangwa-based ethanol producer, will supply the ethanol during the research period.
The researchers learned about using ethanol as a domestic cooking fuel from other countries like Kenya, Haiti and Ethiopia. They hope for the same success in Malawi’s Nkhotakota District.
Women and men in 36 households were trained to use the stoves. They tested them by cooking a variety of dishes including nsima, rice, beans, vegetables, chicken and goat. The trials took place in the villages of Mwadzama, Mapulanga and Mkazimasika.
One of the stove beneficiaries, Agness Mkhango, said they are very efficient. She could cook multiple dishes with just 1 liter of ethanol in a short amount of time, she said.
Another new stove owner, Tionge Banda, said the ethanol stoves were smoke free and cleaner than using charcoal and wood.
“The smoke and ashes that are produced from the wood (get us dirty), and we stink from the smoke,” Banda said. “However, now we will enjoy cooking.”
The stoves can be used indoors as long as the room is well ventilated, Mkandawire said. They produce less than 10 percent of the carbon dioxide and methane – gases that cause climate change – than the amount produced by charcoal.
They hold 1 liter of ethanol which can cook for up to 6 hours.
During the handover ceremony of the ethanol stoves, Peter Chisale, chairperson of the Nkhotakota Cassava Processors Association, said that the initiative came at the right time. It was necessary to the lives of ordinary Malawians as they saw the dangers of careless cutting down of trees, he said.
Many people had no other options then to cut down the trees for cooking and other needs, he said.
“Despite the fact that government and other stakeholder are against deforestation, it has not provided us with the alternative solutions,” Chisale said. “However now that we have these stoves, there is now a great need to reduce the cutting down of trees within our surroundings.”
Chisale urged Ethco to consider reducing ethanol prices to deter people from going back to using wood and charcoal.
The current ethanol price is equated to the price of petrol, but discussions are underway to equate the price with that of paraffin.
Derick Zamayere, Ethco’s operations manager, said his company is committed to environmental conservation. Ethco’s production of ethanol is low compared to its demand, he said. “As the project progresses, the association will supplement our ethanol which will help meet the demand of ethanol on the market.”
The director of planning for Nkhotakota, Gliffin Mhango, who represented the Nkhotakota’s District Commissioner at the ceremony, praised Mkandawire and CABMACC for their work.
The technology will help save forests, he said. The families receiving the stoves should provide information generated during the trial period to enhance the effectiveness of the research.
CABMACC’s representative, Emanuel Zenengeya, assured the program’s continued support of such initiatives. CABMACC is pleased with the direction of the project and looks forward to the attainment of its objectives, he said.
“This will not only benefit the people of Nkhotakota, but also the country at large,” Zenengeya said.
Davis Mweta, Malawi University of Science and Technology’s executive dean, expressed his gratitude towards LUANAR and CABMACC for funding the project. “The battle against climate change cannot be achieved individually but rather through coordinated partnerships like this one,” he said.
Once the trials are over in Nkhotakota, Mkandawire plans to find funding to purchase more stoves to expand their use. Eventually researchers hope to have the stoves manufactured and supplied locally.
Christie Kang’ombe recently graduated from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi with a bachelors degree in agronomy. She is a media intern at LUANAR’s Programmes Coordinating Office and a contributor to the Food Fix.