The Burden of Adulthood: Women in Firewood Business in Zomba, Malawi

By Raymond Nakulenga

Ethel Nkuso is a 24-year old mother of two from Mtiya II Village in Zomba. Her day starts around 4 O’clock in the morning as she departs her home on a 3-hour trek through the thick forest and slippery slopes of Zomba Mountain to Chagwa Dam to collect firewood.

“I tread this path five days a week to collect firewood in the forest. We buy a permit from the Forest Guards (Department of Forestry) at MWK200 (approximately, USD0.12) per headload from which we get up to MWK3000 (approximately, USD1.8) after selling,” she said.

“This is Laika Amidu, a business colleague from the same village”, she said, pointing at her friend as they stopped for a brief rest just before crossing the Mulunguzi Dam.

 “It’s really tough as we spend almost seven hours to-and-from each trip, but what else can we do? It’s the only way for us to make money for a living”, they said.

Figure 1. Laika Amidu returning from Chagwa Dam with a headload of firewood

Photo Credit: Raymond Nakulenga

Firewood is the main source of energy for cooking in Zomba and most parts of Malawi including in urban areas. According to the Fifth Integrated Household Survey, a 2020 publication by the National Statistical Office (NSO), 84.3% of households in Zomba rely on firewood for cooking, which explains why firewood collection and selling is a seemingly lucrative business for women like Ethel and Laika. According to NSO, female-headed households are more likely to fetch firewood from forest or wild parks compared with male-headed households.

Although the National Statistical Office found that, on average, an individual household in Zomba requires about 17 minutes to collect firewood; Ethel and Laika take approximately 7 hours to accomplish their daily task of collecting firewood for sale.

 Culturally, in Malawi, as is the case in most parts of Africa, women are caretakers for the home, responsible for fetching water, cooking, managing the children and perform several other household chores.

With so much time invested in one grueling task, how much pressure do these women undergo to take care of their homes and complete the other household chores?

Figure 2. Laika Amidu (left), Ethel Nkuso (right) taking a rest along the journey
Photo Credit: Welton Phalira

Malawi’s vision, as enshrined in Malawi 2063, is to promote inclusiveness in human capital development by promoting gender transformative approaches that aim to reduce gender power imbalances that hinder the economic empowerment of women.

 As the country is marching towards realizing this vision, it is imperative that the Ministry of Energy and stakeholders explore alternative means of energy for cooking as one way of reducing the burden that women, particularly those in rural areas suffer to provide energy for their homes.

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