Bamboo: Malawi’s untapped potential for clean energy innovation and climate change solution

Posted June 6, 2022

Malawi’s untapped potential for clean energy innovation and climate change solution

Madalitso Mbendera/Malawi

As the world continues to change with new ways of doing things; the need to adapt and explore new approaches is now at the heart of UNDP’s work. UNDP Malawi has fully embraced new strategy, with more innovation to achieve more.

Clean energy innovation is an important part of the climate solution and a key contributor to Sustainable Development Goals.

As part of this support, Malawi Government through the Environmental Affairs Department, launched the Climate Change Research and Innovation Window, with support from UNDP Malawi. The aim of the window is to promote development of innovative solutions to climate change.

With key principles rooted in innovation; radical ideas; technological and nature-based solutions; transformative; restoring ecology integrity of land and forests; building resilient infrastructure in the face of disasters, five projects were selected and awarded US$40,000 (MWK30,160,000) each in cash prize to implement their innovative research ideas.

A year after the initiative was launched, the milestones and achievements have begun to sprout from the awardees.

Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences (MUBAS) is one of the awardees, piloting the Commercialization of Bamboo for firewood and charcoal production, as a sustainable alternative to energy.

Charcoal is a key source of energy in Malawi’s households. The high demand of charcoal production continues to increase in the country, leading to further deforestation and devastating effects of climate change.

Despite the delays and challenges that the project faced due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an encouraging buy-in from community members selected to plant and manage over 350 bamboo seedlings for the project.

The Principal Investigator of the project under MUBAS, Suzgo Kaunda highlights how the team has worked ceaselessly to demonstrate the many benefits of using bamboos as a cheaper, cleaner, and sustainable source of energy.

We are using very ordinary, local and cheap technologies that a local Tinsmith in the community can easily replicate in the production of the Bamboo charcoal. We have trained selected people in the communities on the management of the trees, and we have also improved the survival rates of the seedings to over 90 percent”, said Kaunda.

The bamboo tree is really a gift that keeps giving with its many benefits. Switching to bamboo charcoal not only brings significant environmental benefits, but also creates local jobs and new income opportunities.

The trees grow quickly; yields a high volume of wood quickly; requires minimum management time, which brings in more frequent cash returns to the growers and producers; and grows on land that is considered infertile, unlike other crops.

The gender aspect of the project has also been encouraging to witness. Women in Malawi walk long distances with their children in unsafe forests to collect the wood for firewood and charcoal businesses, which result in cases of violence. The project is therefore having a direct impact on the quality of life for women and children by having the trees planted within the communities, which is considerably safer.

 “We want to see communities and especially women, taking lead in the production of the bamboo charcoal and making a decent living from it”, said Mr. Kaunda.

The project has also captured the interest of Malawi Government, other NGOs and development partners willing to collaborate and learn more about the initiative, as one of the best practices that could be scaled up to other areas in the country.

Commenting on the initiative, The UNDP Resident Representative, Shigeki Komatsubara reiterated continual support within the energy sector and climate change programmes as key areas for UNDP’s work in Malawi.

 “We have all the evidence, that by making the energy sector more sustainable, there would be more equitable growth path whilst at the same time, saving our environment. This project is one of the many initiatives that UNDP is working in Malawi to help promote clean energy access for households and small & medium-sized businesses, with an emphasis on technologies and local innovations”, said Mr. Komatsubara.

As the pilot project approaches its end date, there is still more work that needs to be done on the ground.  The charcoal business in the country is a vast lucrative trade that has been going on for decades and need more coordinated efforts to redirect people to other alternatives.

Speaking on behalf of the Malawi Government, the Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources, Hon. Nancy Tembo highlights on the importance of a mindset shift to fully embrace the alternative energy sources now available in the country.

We have a huge fight against the devastating effects caused by deforestation. As part of our urgent and interim measures, Government is advocating for a national shift to the use of alternative fuel/energy for cooking by Malawians instead of charcoal production which is worsening deforestation.

We are therefore encouraging Malawians to change the mindset when it comes to energy/fuel sources as we now have alternatives, which are cheaper and better to the environment. I am confident that together, we will save our forests for us and future generations”, said Hon. Tembo.