As a former chemist, the New Scientist magazine is part of my weekly reading and often catalyses some useful thinking for the work that we do. It’s rare however to find such a directly relevant piece as Up in flames by Roger Harrabin, analysing Malawi’s energy and environmental challenges - also see BBC website: COP21: Malawi's battle to hold on to forests.

At the Malawi 2020 Planning Meeting in Blantyre in September, a fifth pillar, Energy and Environmental Sustainability, was added to the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme - Roadmap – a 5 year plan on how we aim to achieve a thriving and sustainable tea industry in Malawi. The impetus for bringing a diverse group of stakeholders together to create the roadmap was to raise workers’ wages and improve smallholder livelihoods. At the meeting, it became clear how important the sustainable supply of energy and wider environmental matters are to achieving these goals.

As Roger Harrabin explains: Most electricity in poverty-stricken Malawi comes from renewable sources…. Solar panels have improved students’ results as well as providing income…What little central generation takes place in this corner of Africa is mainly hydropower. This all sounds relatively green until you realise the country has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Trees are often felled to provide fuel for cooking. Fewer trees means less ability to absorb carbon dioxide and it exposes CO2. This is Malawi’s biggest contribution to climate change by far.

As well as the lack of CO2 absorption, deforestation leads to run-off from denuded land taking silt into the hydropower plants, thereby exacerbating energy supply problems caused by erratic rains, resulting in frequent black outs. The problems Mr Harrabin outlines could have been written as a guidance note for our programme.

Smallholder tea below Mount Mulanje, deforestation of the lower slopes is clearly visibleEnergy is already very costly in Malawi and problems with electricity supplied from the national grid forces tea companies to run backup diesel generators, increasing their costs of production, reducing their international competitiveness, and their ability to pay higher wages. At the other end of the scale, farming communities rely on fuel wood for cooking and the majority of tea farming is close to the magnificent Mulanje Mountain. Tea buyers who have been visiting Malawian producers for years have witnessed first-hand the deforestation of this critical watershed, noting the ever-rising tree line as the lower slopes are felled for fuel.


Climbing Mount Mulanje in 1990, with Martha, Ed, David, Dan and Mary

I love Mount Mulanje, having first climbed it with friends many years ago. I was eighteen, about to start my chemistry degree and Malawi was still ruled by Dr. Banda. My memories from that trip are of the incredible scenery, the clear pools to swim in on the way up, the evenings in the huts, and the camaraderie among my friends who were trying to learn Malawian songs from the porters to play on their guitars as we made our evening fire. Each time I visit Malawi for the 2020 Programme I make sure to keep a day free to climb the mountain and while it is still a magnificent place, my memories of those recent climbs now include the charcoal pits we pass as we hike uphill and the smoke rising from the forest from many more of these illegal sites.


Walking up Mount Mulanje 2014 with Joseph Wagurah (ETP), Sebastian Michaelis (TGB), and Jordy van Honk (IDH)

Malawi’s pledge ahead of COP211 was to address deforestation and a key component was the commitment to have 2 million more fuel-efficient stoves, which use around half as much wood as open fires, by 2030. We have been assessing the take-up of these stoves in the tea sector as part of the evaluation of our existing programme to improve smallholder livelihoods and in many places it is under 50%, so we will try and ensure full coverage in the tea sector by 2020. This will be complemented by a reforestation programme in the farming communities, so that farmers can be totally self-sufficient in terms of their energy needs, which will help stop illegal logging.

I may no longer be a chemist, but science and technology plays an important role in ETP’s work, which will include working with the Malawian industry to reduce energy costs thereby freeing up income to support wage increases. One of the first steps will be a learning visit by Malawian factory engineers to Kenya. Our work with the Kenyan Tea Development Agency, GIZ2, and the International Trade Centre has led to significant energy cost savings for tea factories. In some cases these are projected to reach £50,000 per factory by the end of this year and we are excited to share these successes with the Malawian tea sector. We are confident that more savings are possible and the partnership is now moving into more detailed technical work covering everything from specialist training for boiler managers to an analysis of alternative energy sources, including the available supply of agricultural waste for briquettes as a replacement for fuel wood. Look out for more stories about our energy and climate programmes in Kenya and Malawi in the coming weeks.


1The main objective of the annual Conference of Parties (COP) is to review the Convention’s implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and significant meetings since then have included COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, COP11 where the Montreal Action Plan was produced, COP15 in Copenhagen where an agreement to success Kyoto Protocol was unfortunately not realised and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created.
In 2015 COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.
2 The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ)