Machinjiri was in darkness when we arrived in the largest township in southern Malawi.
It was almost 18 hours since electricity went off before sunrise, giving rise to relentless roars of generators.
Only yellowish lights from homes lit by solar power and rechargeable lamps and backup systems formed faint halos in the night.
“We go to sleep in the dark and wake up with no power. We usually leave phones plugged on the sockets just in case power comes unexpectedly,” says Michael Mwala, a resident.
Just in case!
Such are the power uncertainties in Malawi as some sections endure 25 hours without electricity.
The crisis is worsening as power generated down the Shire River further slumped by 20 megawatts (MW) last week. This triggered Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) to start giving some residential areas no power all day.
The depressing cutbacks are a devastating blow on Escom’s push “towards power all day, every day”.
In 2012, the then minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu told the nation to “embrace the blackouts”.
But Malawians are not getting used to frequent power blackouts. Rather, they are illegally importing truckloads of charcoal from Mozambique.
The cross-border trade has been on the rise for nearly two years.
In Blantyre’s power-starved townships, it pans out day and night—shinning the light on how forests are going up in smoke on both sides of the south-western border.
In Machinjiri, we saw an articulated truck, returning from Mozambique, offloading the illegal imports bag by bag.
The bags are small, almost a third of those locally produced charcoal worth almost 6 000 a sack.
“Don’t buy local charcoal,” says Fyness, who sells imported charcoal at Luwanda. “This is the best deal. It burns longer. In no time, your food will be ready.”
The retailer says she had brought in almost 400 bags on Tuesday, but just about 22 were remaining during the visit on Thursday around 8.30am.
“This is hot business. We no longer have natural trees to produce quality charcoal like what we are getting from Mozambique. Soon, the heap will be gone,” she explains, bragging that another consignment was on the way.
Many people were seen scrambling for the charcoal trickling from the forests of Angonia and Mutalala through Mwanza Border Post.
The natural woods are located almost 50km from the boundary on the way to the coalfields of Moatize in Mozambique.
Why do buyers jostle for small bags worth K3 500 when it takes three of them—worth K11 500—to fill a locally sourced one which is bulky and sold at K6 000 nearby?
In random interviews, the answer was unanimous: Mozambican charcoal is durable, burns really hot and emits less smoke.
But this is not another story of a nation obsessed with foreign goods, including bananas and potatoes from Tanzania.
“This is not sustainable,” environmentalist Dorothy Tembo-Nhlema says. “It means natural trees which produce charcoal are almost gone. Government needs to wake up and find ways of promoting the uptake of alternative and cleaner sources of energy because this is one of the effects of the frequent and lengthy electricity blackouts.”
The environmentalist reckoned the two countries may run out of the remaining natural forests unless they seal “porous borders”.
Nhlema explains: “One day, we will have no tree. For a country fighting illegal charcoal business to start importing the same shows the borders are porous. Our neighbours can buy our charcoal in bulks, repackage it and sell it back to us.
“This puts forest in danger. The country will continue experiencing devastating effects of climate change, especially floods, drought and hailstorms.”
In an interview after grabbing a bag, Mary Mwale, 38, says: “Let’s not fool ourselves: we are tired of local charcoal which looks like it comes from maize stalks. Muwanga, Tsanya and other good trees are gone. Half the bags contain charcoal dust and other residues.
“The bags from Mozambique look small, but you have nothing to throw away. This is good because endless blackouts are straining our budgets.”
Dependence on charcoal
Nearly every household—about 97 percent—in Malawi relies on firewood or charcoal for cooking and heating.
Government has come up with a National Charcoal Strategy “to arrest and reverse deforestation and overdependence on charcoal.
But the framers of the strategy acknowledge “no single solution exists” to the question of booming charcoal business.
It reads in part: “With alternative fuel sources underdeveloped, firewood and charcoal will continue to form a significant part of Malawi’s energy mix for the next few decades.”
Firewood remains the most used cooking fuel, accounting for 87.7 percent of homes, but charcoal now predominates in urban areas (54 percent).
This demand for charcoal is wiping out forests.
This leaves the country more vulnerable to climate shocks and environmental degradation, reducing agricultural productivity, food security, water levels and hydropower generation.
Blackouts aside, the country is hit hard by low access to electricity.
According to the National Statistical Office (NSO), just a tenth of the population is connected to the grid. However, only one percent of those with access to electricity use it for cooking.
The challenge of safeguarding forests is immense.
Every year, the country loses up to three percent of the country’s forests.
This is the highest deforestation rate in Southern African Development Community (Sadc), the second-highest on the continent and the fourth globally.
“From satellite images and what we see on the ground, it is clear deforestation rate in the country is very high. The arrival of charcoal from Mozambique, if true, could be an indication that we have reached a stage where a selection of natural trees that once produced quality charcoal coal—
But Sangwani Phiri, the spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Affairs, says government is clamping down on illegal import of charcoal.
“We started noticing proliferation of charcoal in Lilongwe early this year. Police and forestry officers have been confiscating the bags from transporters, vendors and buyers because they are illegal. We will not allow the country to be used as a market and conduits for illegal charcoal trade,” he said.
But what do the truckloads of this illegal cargo from abroad mean to efforts to end charcoal?
“We are on the ground and we are doing a good job to enforce forestry laws which ban charcoal trade. Those captured testify that they are turning to Mozambique because police and forestry officials in Malawi are strict about ending charcoal production and sales in the country,” says Phiri.
But sights of trucks and bicycles hauling charcoal on main roads are just one contradiction of the claims of stringent enforcement of forestry laws.
The other, a sign of selective justice, includes bags of charcoal on sale near Zalewa Police Roadblock in Neno and Thabwa in Chikwawa where the security and forestry agents confiscate illegal forest produce.
“As law enforcers, we have roadblocks where forestry officials are supposed to confiscate charcoal and illegal products from our forests. The duty of police officers is to offer them back up security so that they can work well,” says Southern Region Police spokesperson Ramsey Mushani.
There are none in entry points, including Mwanza Border where charcoal-carrying trucks from Mozambique cross with ease.
According to Phiri, the Department of Forestry has ceded its powers to Malawi Revenue Authority officials to keep all illegal forestry-related imports in check.
But truck drivers, familiar with the transportation of imported charcoal, say they find it harder to cross Zobwe Border Post on Mozambique’s soil.
“Most truckers bury the bags of charcoal under dry cargo, especially clinker [a raw material for cement]. When they discover the bags, they grab everything, instantly.” At Mwanza, on Malawian side, they only care when it comes to charcoal from our forests,” says Moses, a Blantyre-based long-distance driver.
He added: “When they see bags from Mozambique, they either ask for one or change for a cold drink. No questions. You go scot-free.”
The so-called “cold drink” is a codename for kickbacks.
Just like that, some charcoal traders import thousands of bags per trip, a sign that there is huge unmet demand for charcoal locally.
At Zalewa, we met some businesspeople waiting for trucks to bring their order and other readying to travel to the forests of Mozambique where charcoal is sold by the roadside as is the case in Malawi.
“You either go there to order yourself or offer a trusted truck driver some money to do it for you,” says a woman who has been running the business for 10 months.
To Chiotha, the charcoal from Malawi is not only sustaining an appetite for charcoal which keeps consuming forests where trees are being wiped out faster than they are being planted.
“This is a business opportunity. We need to make energy trees for future energy part of the annual tree planting season. If we plant good trees for charcoal now, we will harvest and sell when they are mature,” he says.
But almost half of the trees planted every year died due to drought and lack of care.
Embracing alternative energy sources, including wind and solar, could be the game-changer as power failures have become a new normal.
The demand for charcoal is depleting forests at Senzani, Phalula, Kamwamba and other parts of the Shire Highlands.
Downstream, the turbines are producing less and less energy as the Shire, the source of almost 99 percent of the country’s hydropower, is being buried in silt.
As Escom brinks on and off, truck drivers who operate between Malawi and Mozambique say the forests across the border look “similar to ours”—a lengthy drive splitting vast grasslands dotted with shrubs…