The University of Southampton
Engineering and the Environment

We're informing energy policy in sub-saharan Africa

Our research has demonstrated the importance of charcoal production for the livelihoods of people in Malawi, influencing the country’s policy stance on energy and deforestation.

12 June 2017

Charcoal is the main source of urban domestic fuel in sub-Saharan African countries; it generates an income for millions of people and makes a significant contribution to the region’s economy. However, the positive aspects of charcoal production have largely been discounted by policy makers, who see it as a ‘dirty’ fuel and a driver of deforestation. This has led to regulatory approaches that can have a detrimental impact on people’s livelihoods, as well as being counterproductive in terms of environmental protection.

  • Charcoal consumption in sub-Saharan African countries is estimated at around 23 million tonnes per year, predicted to double by 2030
  • Production of charcoal provides an income for seven million people in the region, expected to rise to 12 million by 2050
  • Malawi’s charcoal industry is worth over US$40m
  • Between 1990 and 2005, Malawi lost 12.7% of its forest cover 

Research undertaken by Dr Harriet Smith has filled a gap in knowledge about the charcoal trade in Malawi and its contribution to livelihoods. “Charcoal is a hugely important income source that shouldn’t be ignored,” she says. “But there was very little information on how the charcoal sector runs, who is involved, what their motives are, and how they perceive the benefits and risks. My aim was to produce some robust data to inform more effective decision making.”

Influencing policy formation

The study has contributed to a significant shift in the Malawian government’s policy position on charcoal. In 2015, initial findings were shared at the Malawi National Charcoal Forum, which was the starting point for the development of a new charcoal strategy for the country. “The meeting came up with six considerations to inform the strategy,” explains Dr Malcolm Hudson, Associate Professor in Environmental Sciences and one of the project’s supervisors. “These included things like forest management and promoting alternative sources of sustainable energy, but, crucially, also included recognising the role of charcoal in supporting income generation and livelihoods. For the first time the government has moved from viewing charcoal production as a problem that it must tackle, to acknowledging it as a benefit that must be incorporated into its plans.”

A regulatory challenge  

Charcoal production in Malawi is governed by punitive policies that have effectively criminalised the activity. "Regulations introduced to address environmental concerns have made it very difficult to produce charcoal legally," says Harriet. "The process and costs involved in getting a licence mean this is an unrealistic option for most people." Those who do get involved in the charcoal trade – often poor, small-scale, subsistence-level producers and sellers who have few other options to support their families – are at risk of enforcement measures that impact on their financial security. These include confiscation of stock and equipment, fines and sometimes beatings or imprisonment.

In addition, the lack of workable regulation means there is no incentive to invest in sustainable forest management, while informal production is often inefficient and likely to use more natural resources.

Malcolm says: “If the current charcoal production laws were implemented as intended, there would be a massive energy gap in Malawi and people wouldn’t be able to cook or heat their homes. Developing countries are working towards the use of cleaner, sustainable energy sources to replace charcoal, but this will take decades.”

Understanding the realities of charcoal production

To contribute to more effective policy making in the shorter term, Harriet’s study focused on the production and supply of charcoal by small-scale rural operators to the city of Zomba. A small but fast-growing city with rising energy demands, Zomba is typical of much of sub-Saharan Africa, where it is predicted that 75 per cent of urban growth will occur in small cities.

Combining a range of social research methods, the study included surveys in 28 villages around Zomba, focus group discussions with key informants, and a survey of over 200 charcoal transporters. Harriet used three villages as case study examples, talking to charcoal producers and using different appraisal methods to find out how they generate income, what they spend it on and how enforcement activities affect them.

The study was a spin-off from ASSETS (Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios), a major research project led by the University of Southampton and funded by the UK’s Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme. ASSETS examined the reliance of poor rural communities on natural forest resources in Malawi, Colombia and Peru; Harriet received local support in Malawi from a network of ASSETS researchers. Her work was funded by a joint studentship from Engineering and the Environment and the University’s Institute for Life Sciences, and she also received funding from the Tropical Agricultural Association.

A route out of poverty

Highlighting charcoal’s potential as a route out of poverty for rural communities, the findings showed how it allows households to cover the cost of basics such as food, tools and seeds to support subsistence farming, education and healthcare. One feature of charcoal production is that enables people to raise funds in a relatively short time, enabling them to establish a business, move into another trade or travel to other countries for work. It can also help households cope with unforeseen events such as famine, the death of a family member or a period of unemployment.

There was also evidence that punitive enforcement measures not only made people more financially vulnerable, but could have negative environmental consequences. People who were fined or had their charcoal confiscated were not deterred from the trade – in fact they were likely to cut down more trees and make more charcoal in order to recover their losses. This included felling fruit trees when other species had been cleared, compounding already high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.



By recognising these realities, forestry and energy policies will be able to take a more constrictive and coordinated approach to the issue of charcoal production while making longer-term plans for access to more sustainable energy resources.

Dr Harriet Smith - Post doctoral researcher

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