Mozambique: Charcoal production isn't the answer to ending rural poverty

December 18, 2017

The charcoal industry is among the most important semi-formal economic sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa and a key cash income source for local households who produce it. There is a hot debate around whether income from charcoal production is enough to alleviate rural poverty.

A new paper by Frank Vollmer et al reports on a study in southern Mozambique – and finds that charcoal production is not helping producers out of acute, multi-dimensional poverty, when they measure poverty by a composite of nine different indicators. “Cash income from charcoal production is not a sufficient condition to alleviate acute multi-dimensional poverty in the study region,” conclude the authors. Acute multi-dimensional poverty refers to the inability of household members to meet minimum national and international standards of wellbeing. The team measured households’ wellbeing in terms of: sanitation, water security, mortality of children under 5, access to equitable healthcare, formal education, food security, access to services, associations and credit, assets owned and housing. They assessed the marginal effect of charcoal income on acute multi-dimensional poverty, controlling for other determinants.

The researchers focused on Mabalane district, Gaza province, in southern Mozambique, a charcoal-supplying region that typifies the challenge of managing mopane woodlands for the benefit of the rural poor in southern Africa. Mopane woodland is a dominant type of vegetation in the region.

The researchers’ findings show a high intensity (67.7%) and prevalence of acute multi-dimensional poverty in the study area. Households with charcoal income tended to have valuable household assets, but charcoal income was not fully responsible for these assets - other factors were involved. What is more, the researchers did not find that charcoal income played a statistically significant role in whether people where acutely multi-dimensionally poor or not. “While charcoal income can act as a coping strategy that increases the resistance from multi-dimensional impoverishment, [the] evidence is insufficient to label the production of charcoal a safety net from multi-dimensional impoverishment. Too many charcoal producing households have been found to be in acute multi-dimensional poverty in order to justifiably make that claim,” they state.

Their findings highlight the enormous barriers both producers and non-producers of charcoal alike face in this region in order to overcome poverty. Vollmer et al’s findings challenge the perception that charcoal income can sufficiently alleviate poverty, particularly when a multi-dimensional perspective is adopted. They conclude that in order to reduce and eventually eliminate acute, multi-dimensional poverty, decision-makers will need to embrace a “concentrated, cross-sectional, whole-of-government approach to tackle poverty in its multidimensional breadth and complexity, while attempts at making the charcoal industry more inclusive and equitable should be accelerated.”

The paper is an output of the ESPA-supported project Abrupt Changes in Ecosystem Services and Wellbeing in Mozambican Woodlands (ACES).

Read the related blog: Defining poverty is vital if you want to fix it. 


Image:  Mozambican women take charcoal sacks to market; courtesy Ton Rulkens, flickr