Urban households in southern Africa depend on charcoal for energy security: MSU research partnership

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    In September of 2016, the AAP issued an open call for research proposals that target the AAP’s thematic areas of agri-food systems; water, energy and the environment; youth empowerment; education; culture; and health and nutrition. After receiving over sixty-five proposals, fifteen proposals were chosen to be awarded between $50,000-$200,000 towards their projects that would create long-term and sustainable collaborations between MSU faculty and partners from African Organizations. 

    Now, three years of diligence and passion later, these research teams have finished their research. To celebrate and share this collaboration, effecting positive change in Africa through meaningful and equitable partnerships, here is a success story from one of the teams and their project, “Energy Security for Sustainable Livelihoods in Southern Africa”. 

    This project was led by professor Robert B. Richardson from MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability and Judith Kamoto,  a Lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Forestry. With a team comprised of faculty from MSU, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, and the University of Zambia, this research project confronts the challenges presented from dependence on woodfuels for energy in sub-Saharan Africa.  

    More than 80% of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal as their main source of cooking energy, and demand is projected to increase for several decades. Although the charcoal market provides urban households with an affordable source of energy and is also a major source of income for rural households, charcoal production is associated with deforestation and forest degradation, as well as with negative impacts on watersheds and water quality. With this in mind, the objective of the research project was to examine the role of charcoal in household energy security and in livelihoods, since relatively little is known about household behaviour and decision making in sub-Saharan Africa regarding urban household energy choices. 

    Throughout the duration of their research, their team gathered data from urban households in Malawi and Zambia regarding their energy consumption, including sources of cooking fuel, prices paid, and frequency of purchase. Their team also gathered data from charcoal producers, transporters, and wholesale buyers in order to better understand the charcoal value chain. They did this by developing a research design and conducting urban household surveys, along with semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with charcoal producers, transporters, and wholesale traders. As the first known study of the charcoal value chain across Malawi and Zambia, the project has advanced knowledge of energy consumption of urban households in southern Africa and has advanced knowledge of the role charcoal plays in the livelihoods of people in these regions. Dr. Richardson says, “The findings highlight the complex nature of the charcoal value chain, and they reveal significant implications for energy policy and forest conservation.” 

    In July of 2018, Dr. Richardson had the opportunity to present the results from this research project at the conference of the International Center for Evaluation and Development, Evidence to Action, in Nairobi, Kenya. With the new findings that came from this research project, the team hopes to build upon the successes of the project thus far and develop a grant proposal to be submitted to a foundation for additional research in the region that addresses solutions to the charcoal dilemma, such as efficient charcoal cookstoves, multi-purpose cookstoves, alternative energy sources, and sustainable charcoal.  

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