When Women Take the Lead to Fight Deforestation

A new type of home cooking stove, called the Chitetezo Mbaula, is proving to be a safer, cleaner, and more portable solution that is now sweeping across rural Malawi, making lives easier, providing job opportunities for those who critically need them, and all while encouraging environmental conservation.


Words and Photographs by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

Woman standing by Chitetezo Mbaula
Grace Kanjuchi showing some of the stoves she has in stock

It is Friday afternoon, a sunny day in Chief Makata’s area in the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi, and Grace Kanjuchi is making a presentation to a group of fellow villagers at the village’s court. This has been her day job since January this year, when she became a Chitetezo Mbaula Community Promoter. She mobilizes people and teaches them about the Chitetezo Mbaula: the improved, cleaner and more fuel-efficient cookstove. The name Chitetezo Mbaula means “protecting stove”.

Touted as a fast, efficient, affordable and portable means of cooking, the cookstove is being promoted by United Purpose (an NGO formerly known as Concern Worldwide) as one of the tools to combat deforestation, which is one of the leading causes of climate change. It is being offered as an appropriate alternative to the traditional three-stone cooking fire, which has been used for centuries by the majority of Malawians. It is premised on the goal of replacing the inefficient traditional charcoal/firewood cooking forms, so charcoal and firewood consumption can be reduced, translating into environmental conservation.

Kanjuchi says that since the message of environmental conservation came to her region, a lot has been concentrated on planting and taking care of the trees as a means to combat climate change, yet little or nothing has been done to promote cleaner and more efficient means of household cooking.

“In this area a lot has been done to conserve the environment through afforestation yet cleaner cooking has been neglected for long. The environmental conservation story is incomplete if cleaner cooking is left out,” she says.

It is this reason that inspired Kanjuchi, 31, to join United Purpose as a Community Promoter, a voluntary position, in order to play her part in environmental conservation through lobbying women of her area to adopt the stove for cooking, after she personally noticed a significant reduction in the of amount of firewood used as compared with traditional three-stone open fires.

Tree stump
Tree-felling for the purposes of cooking is a widespread practice in this part of Malawi, but it is becoming less necessary with the introduction of the new stoves.

Kanjuchi says the cookstove, which is made of a clay body, retains heat for a considerable time, which makes it easy and efficient to cook with even when one has very few firewood sticks, and can even be used with readily available crop residues such that it is ideal for the elderly or sick people who have difficulties buying or collecting firewood. Because of the design of pot rests, the stove can accommodate different sizes of pots.

“With Chitetezo Mbaula cookstove, households can reduce frequency of firewood collection by up to 44% as compared to the three-stone fire,” says the mother of two boys

She says open fires and the resulting smoke are a health risk, mainly for women and children as they are mostly involved in cooking, through inhalation and the potential for burns, but the Chitetezo Mbaula produces 60 percent less smoke and has a solid base that offers some degree of safety against the risk of spilling burning ash.

In a country where household pollution is the number one risk factor for the burden of disease, and the World Health Organziation reports that 50 percent of premature deaths among children under five worldwide are due to pneumonia, the improved Chitetezo Mbaula stove can lessen exposure to indoor air pollution.

Kanjuchi says at first most people were skeptical about the stove, such that very few stoves being were taken up, but after the success stories of the initial few people that were willing to try, the number of orders grew gradually to the extent that, out of 500 households in the area, more than 400 now have the modern cookstove thanks to the promotional pricing which reduced the initial price per unit from US$3 to just US$1.50.

“I noticed the upsurge in demand of the cookstoves when the price was reduced from K2500 to just K1000 per unit. More households have been able to acquire a modern cookstove because they are now able to afford it,” she says.

One of the women who bought the cookstove recently is Chikondi Thipa Chinomba. The 39-year-old mother of three from the same area, says is satisfied with the cookstove’s deliverables saying apart from wood saving, the cookstove is promoting improved kitchen and cooking management practices such as cooking in well ventilated places and drying firewood before use.

“With Chitetezo Mbaula, I am able to cook or heat while seated under a tree on open air where smoke is minimal than in a kitchen room where smoke circulate for long because of little ventilation thereby causing me to cough,” she explains.

Woman cooking on Chitetezo Mbaula stove
Chinomba cooking on Chitetezo Mbaula

Malawi continues to suffer annual deforestation at a rate of 2.6 percent, which is said to be one of the highest in Africa. It is estimated that, between 1990 and 2010, forest cover declined from 41 percent to 34 percent. Among the drivers for the deforestation in the South East African country is its entire dependence on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating. With high urbanization rates and rapid population growth, the country of an estimated 17 million people continues to put intense pressure on the forests as 90 percent of the people use firewood for cooking energy needs.

Marketing Manager for United Purpose, one of the non governmental organization behind the production of Chitetezo Mbaula cookstove, Liviness Msafu says access to basic, clean and modern energy is critical to sustainable, equitable development. This realization has resulted in the creation of the global Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative and the inclusion of energy in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Chitetezo Mbaula not only helps in reducing deforestation and gas emissions,” Msafu explains. “It also aims at improving water, air and soil quality besides sustaining biodiversity.”

Man on bicycle with heavy load
Coal on its way to market

Msafu says that, if more households are equipped with the new cookstoves, there will be reduction to exposure to smoke, mainly among women and children, while there would be significant reduction of deforestation by saving 65,000 tonnes of wood for every 150,000 households that uses a Chitetezo Mbaula cookstove.

The cookstove has also improved health and hygiene of households as cases of running noses and red eyes due to smoke exposure while cooking have drastically reduced, as noted by another user Monica Chingota of Chikwawa.

“Previously running noses and red eyes were a common occurrence among me and my daughters due to three-stone fire which emit more smoke,” she says. “However, with this stove the smoke is minimal.”

Chingota says that, with the Chitetezo Mbaula, the whole family has seen a reduction in negative health effects, not just by fewer emissions but also by cooking in environments more ventilation, such as outdoors. The stove is highly suited to cooking outside as its handles allow it to be safely moved even when the fire is burning. The handles protect the user from hand burns, which are a frequent occurrence with open fire cooking.

The cookstove is made with locally available resources like clay, fuel (in fuel efficient kiln) and water. It burns using crop residues and wood, thereby reducing the need to cut down trees for the purpose.

Msafu says that through promoting access to cleaner energy, their organization is contributing to poverty reduction. Energy access saves time, when it substitutes manual labour and reduces the drudgery of fetching fuel wood and water, tasks women are responsible for in Malawi.

As a new user of the cookstove, Elizabeth January says although it has been a month since she started using it, she has already noted a drastic reduction in the amount of money she was spending on firewood as compared to when she was using the traditional three-stone fire, saying she has been using seven bundles of firewood, totaling MK4,500 (US$6), a month. However, with the cookstove, she is using only five bundles per month, costing her MK2,500 (US$3.50).

“In my short period I have been using the cookstove, I have noted a remarkable reduction of money spent on firewood from K4500 to K2500 per month. This is so because the cookstove has only a hole for placing firewood unlike traditional fire which has three sides of firewood placements,” she says.

January goes on to say that the cookstove is easy to use even in the event that one has little or no firewood at all, as even crop resides like pigeon peas husks will suffice, and it is accommodative to any pot type, be it flat or round bottom, which further reduces the incidence of slip-related burns.

Heap of firewood
A heap of firewood ready to be used for cooking

The stove is also providing an income to many rural women and youths, as they are involved in the moulding and finishing of the stoves, from which they are able to earn a share from the sales to meet their daily needs, and adding the benefit of economic empowerment. For every 1000 cookstoves sold, 25 jobs are created, 67 percent of which are women, many of whom never had a reliable source of income before. So far the stove-making business has created jobs and incomes for 2000 women and 600 men.

“When people buy a Chitetezo Mbaula, apart from making their crucial contribution towards environmental conservation, they are also economically empowering some women groups who could otherwise have no source of income,” Msafu sums up.

So far, 900 000 households have been reached with the cookstoves; but, she says, although the number is encouraging, it is still 55 percent shy of the 2-million-household goal aimed for by the end of 2020. There is still hope, however, as with increased publicity more households are being reached, offering further aid in this fight on the side of nature.

Design-wise, there is also a stove to cater for a larger number of people. The Mayankho stove has a bigger cooking capacity, and is suitable for schools. It has a pot capacity of between 80 and 100 litres, and can feed up to 540 children in one meal, yet it uses less fuel, emits less smoke and cooks more quickly. The name Mayankho means “answers” in local vernacular. In most primary schools in Malawi, there is a school-feeding programme whereby pupils are given porridge at breaktime. The programme is supported by World Food Programme (WFP) as the main actor. Growing evidence suggests school-feeding programmes can reduce the prevalence of both stunting and being underweight in primary school children, while improving school attendance rates across all grades and reducing food insecurity.

Stove up close
Mayankho stove at a local primary school

However, at the start of the programme, many schools struggled with firewood with which to prepare the porridge, as consumption of firewood in the kitchen was high until the Mayankho stove was introduced to schools across Malawi by the Mary Meals Foundation. With a Mayankho stove, for a meal of 540 children, only 4 kilogrammes of firewood are needed. This is but a fraction of what it once cost when they were using an ordinary three-stone fire, as Bright Gwadigwa, a teacher at Mudi Primary School, explains:

“The Mayankho stove has been a revelation to our school feeding programme,” he says. “With it, the firewood usage has greatly decreased from 12 kilogrammes to just 4 kilogrammes per meal. This has enabled our school to provide vitamin rich porridge to learners without hassles and probably conserving the environment.”

As it stands, there is no doubt that the Chitetezo Mbaula has health, environmental and economic benefits to users. However, its overall success depends on a coordinated approach to continued advocacy for awareness to the masses by all environmental conservation stakeholders.