Ecosystem services reality in the warm heart of Africa

Anne Nyambane, ESPA Fellow
November 24, 2015

Recently I had my first visit to Malawi, the “Warm Heart of Africa” and the location of the second case study in my ESPA fellowship project. I was there for three weeks to collect data on whether bioethanol could become a potential substitute for charcoal as a main household fuel in urban and peri-urban areas of Lilongwe. All of the bioethanol produced in Malawi for the past 30 years has been channeled to the transport sector, since it is seen to have high returns. However, the household sector could also offer high returns, which we hope to demonstrate using an ecosystem service approach. The ecosystem approach can help to unpack the complexity associated with charcoal, which is an important provisioning good but when produced unsustainability reduces the capacity of the forest ecosystem to provide other essential goods and services that support human well-being.

As we drove down the well-tarmacked roads of Malawi towards the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), some activities captured my attention linking the reality of life here to ideas in ecosystem services approach. First, a number of men passed on bicycles carrying huge loads of firewood that almost engulf them, like surfers being caught underneath giant waves (see photo 1). Amazingly, every 30 seconds we would pass groups of these firewood-carrying riders going in both directions. The artistic way in which the huge heap of firewood was arranged mesmerized me. In Kenya, we have men on bicycles carrying firewood but the heaps are never this large.


Photo 1: Firewood transporter

Second, right in the middle of land cleared for human settlement would sit well-forested areas that seemed so healthy and undisturbed. I turned to my colleague Davies who knew exactly what I was going to ask, and he informed me that it was a graveyard. It reminded me of the urban areas in Kenya where we have graveyards in open fields while in the rural areas the dead are buried just outside our houses. Davies also told me that the patches of forest were an important sacred area where the gule wa mkulu, a Chewa traditional group, meet for their daily rituals.

Third, I was struck by the young men hawking tiny roasted birds along the roadside. The birds are roasted and pinned on sticks, four birds on each. According to Davies, the birds are called mbalame and are among the many delicacies found in Malawi, along with mice, caterpillars and crickets. All these activities show how Malawians benefit from forest ecosystem services yet these provisioning goods are often overlooked and considered insignificant.

Over the weekend, I met with 15-year old Ganizani, a bird seller (he refuses to have his picture taken, which I respect). He has been selling mbalame since 2011 as his main source of income and the profits from his sales are more than can be made from selling chickens, which he sells between the months of January to April when the birds are out of season. Ganizani gets the birds from a supplier in Blantyre; he roasts the birds then sells them on sticks at 400MWK each. He typically sells between 100-200 sticks per day and he told me that this is an important source of livelihood for him since it does not require any specific educational qualification; all he needs are barbecuing skills to roast the birds without burning them.

Photo 2: My new friend Chisomo just bought mbalame

The following day as I headed to the field I stopped to chat with Alex, a firewood seller. He had just finished selling the firewood he had gotten from Dzalanyama forest reserve the previous day and was heading back home, before returning to the forest the following day to cut more firewood. Alex told me that when he goes to cut firewood, he typically leaves his home at 3 am and arrives at Dzalanyama forest reserve at 8 am where he spends another three or four hours cutting firewood. He then travels by bicycle with his huge heap of firewood back to the city, which takes around five hours.

At the forest, he pays 500MK for the permit to access the forest and makes a maximum of 5,000MK in sales per trip. But this is only if his bicycle does not have any mechanical problems; sometimes he only makes 1,500MK per trip. Alex spoke about how the charcoal business is threatening his firewood business. Rampant illegal charcoal production in Dzalanyama by people pretending to be firewood sellers has led to the deployment of military personnel in the forest, with some legitimate firewood sellers have been arrested and their bicycle confiscated. This tends to happen when firewood sellers arrive at the forest early before permit officers are around: they enter the forest without a permit with an intention of securing the permit when they exit the forest, but this does not go down well with the military personnel.

             Photo 3: Alex, the firewood seller

I left Malawi after three weeks feeling confident that indeed reducing the pressures on our forests and sustainable use of forest ecosystem services would enhance human well-being.