Fast, affordable stoves destined to save Malawian forests from pressure
As we approach one of the villages in rural Malawi, a few kilometres from the Nchitsi Forest Reserve boundary, we are met by a group of villagers in song and dance. It is hard for them to hide their excitement upon seeing staff of Wildlife Environment Society of Malawi (WESM, BirdLife partner in Malawi). They quickly lead us to the kitchen and one of them and proudly show us a changu mbaula - Chichewa for ‘fast stove’, also known as ‘rocket’ stove for its quick cooking abilities. It turns out that in the next three days we’ll visit two IBAs, Nchitsi Forest Reserve and Kasungu National Park, we’ll meet many of such groups with testimonies about the stoves, village forest areas and other conservation work they are involved in.
“We are very happy that WESM told us about these stoves”, explains the woman owner of the kitchen. “These should have come even much earlier. The stoves have saved us from a lot of trouble. Before I started using this stove, I could fetch four bundles of firewood per week”, she adds. “Now with the changu baula, I only use one bundle of firewood in two weeks. I can also use maize cobs for a long time instead of firewood”. Other villagers join in explaining the advantages of the stove: it is fast, cooking pots remain relatively clean, health standards are high due to reduced smoke, and are extremely convenient since two pots can be cooked at the same time. “Most importantly, they have significantly reduced pressure from the forest since we are fetching much less firewood from the forest. This gives us more spare time for other duties”, explains the leader of the particular Village Natural Resource Committee (VNRC). “The stoves are in use in 106 of the 114 households found in this particular VNRC, with the remaining 12 houses belonging to old people who do not cook for themselves”, she adds. Communities around Nchitsi Forest Reserve (an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area- IBA) are organised into VNRCs each linked to the lowest administrative unit under a village head. WESM is working with 70 such VNRCs around Nchitsi, 150 around Kasungu National Park and 82 around Dzalanyama Forest Reserve. Through engagement of VNRCs and school wildlife clubs, large numbers of communities are reached. “For example, around Kasungu National Park, 3850 rocket stoves are confirmed to be in use by communities”, says Charles Beni, a WESM field officer who is based in Kasungu.
On visiting another kitchen 300 metres away from the first, we ask the owner how much money it cost her to make the stove. “Nothing”, she answers. “All materials, which include cow dung, anthill soil and locally made clay bricks, are locally available. All I needed is labour and the skills that WESM field officers had offered to us”, she explains confidently. Indeed this is confirmed the following day when we visit VNRCs around Kasungu National Park and three of them quickly demonstrate skilfully how the stove is constructed. Grace Jackson, the WESM Nchitsi field officer then takes us to the home of the Traditional Authority, the leader responsible for a set of VNCRs in the area. “He is the champion for the use of the stove and other conservation work by the communities and he is keen that we witness that he is using this amazing stove; otherwise he’ll be disappointed”, Grace asserts.
Each of the VNRCs we visit also takes us to Village Forest Areas (VFAs) they have communally established. These are portions of land (mostly >2 ha) dedicated to planting of trees for use by the respective villages. Each of the VFA has in the last one year been planted with 1500 to 6000 tree seedlings of different species. In the previous year the VNRCs had established tree nurseries with the help of WESM and had transferred the seedlings to the VFAs during the rainy season. Communities and schools wildlife clubs are also encouraged to establish small woodlots near homes and in school compounds. These will in future be sources of wood for the communities and thus serve in reducing pressure from the forests.
“Before WESM came, we were doing environmental conservation without skills. Now we have been trained in tree nursery management, tree planting and governance of our committee, and supplied with basic materials and equipment”, says the chair of Chikoma VNRC in Kasungu. “We however request for support in implementing livelihood improvement business enterprises so that we can be able to earn a better living and sustain our conservation work”, he adds. This message is echoed in several groups we visit. Luckily, WESM is exploring possibilities of supporting business enterprises for the communities in the next phase if resources are found. “In addition to the business enterprises to support community livelihoods, our hope is to establish a proper monitoring system to determine the actual impacts of the work we are doing in the natural resources in the IBAs”, explains Vincent Kaitano, the WESM Lilongwe Branch Manager. “We also aspire to support communities in establishing umbrella community associations representing all VNRCs at each IBA. These would be the equivalent of BirdLife Site Support Groups and would help us in easier communication and support across villages”, Vincent adds. “These three elements would greatly help in sustaining our work with the communities. However, we are yet to obtain resources for this next phase, and would welcome any support”, says Vincent.
The VNRCs have also been instrumental in voluntary patrolling of Kasungu National Park, Nchitsi Forest Reserve and Dzalanyama Forest Reserve against poaching and fire. “Through working with WESM, the park’s relationship with communities has improved and poaching reduced”, says the Warden of Kasungu National Park upon making a courtesy call to his office. “We acknowledge the great facilitation we have received through collaboration with WESM, which has led to improved patrolling of the park”.
This work has been made possible by project funding to WESM by NORAD through the Norwegian Ornithological Society (NOF – the BirdLife Partner in Norway). The project aims at improving rural livelihoods strategies in IBAs through enhanced biodiversity conservation, promotion of sustainable enterprises and fostering public private partnerships.
Story by Kariuki Ndang’ang’a – BirdLife Africa Partnership Secretariat