Tedson Kameta is a member of the Village Hands co-operative in Neno District, southern Malawi. He used to chop down and burn trees to make charcoal. But now, as part of the co-operative, he harvests wild fruit and makes juice for a growing domestic market. Mr. Kameta says, “Until around 2000, people here didn’t know that we could benefit from this forest in a more profitable way while also sustaining it.”
In Malawi, 95 per cent of rural households use firewood for energy. The Zalewa forest in Neno District has long been under pressure from people seeking wood for fuel. Forests in Malawi are disappearing fast.
The tamarind tree is widespread in the Zalewa forest. Tamarind produces a durable charcoal that burns for a long time. Local people have traditionally soaked tamarind and baobab in water to make a beverage. David Zuzanani is operations manager for Village Hands. He says that until a project came to the area in 1996, the villagers had no idea that they could develop that drink into a commercial enterprise.
Mr. Zuzanani says, “As soon as people realized they could make money out of juice and the fruits, they started raising awareness in their areas to protect the forest.”
The co-operative now bottles up to 10,000 litres of juice each month. The beverages have been approved for sale by the Malawi Bureau of Standards. The juice sells for the equivalent of one and a half U.S. dollars in major supermarkets and at service stations. Average sales are two thousand dollars per month. The co-operative employs 11 local workers full-time in its one-room factory.
Production is done by hand. Workers soak fruit in three large containers before pasteurizing it and straining it to remove the pulp. One innovative technique extracts additional nutrients from baobab seeds to give one juice a distinctive taste and brown colour.
The co-operative buys all its fruit from villagers. In 2008, Mr. Kameta made one hundred dollars from selling his baobab fruit. With the money, he bought three goats and feed for his dairy cow. Last year, he harvested 40 bags of baobab fruit and made two hundred dollars profit. He plans to buy an oxcart and start raising guinea fowl.
Village Hands is managed by 14 trustees, including village chiefs. When profits are good, the villages share the returns and finance local projects chosen by the trustees. Mr. Zuzanani says, “Some villages have chosen orphan care centres. We have financed several such small projects. But we intend to grow the business so that we can finance bigger projects such as boreholes and school blocks.”
In spite of progress, charcoal production is still a big problem in the area. Forests close to populated areas are protected, and villagers guard them. But forests further away are still being cut for charcoal. Mr. Zuzanani says, “Those people [who chop down forests] have money and they can corrupt anyone. Chiefs are working hard to stop this, but we also need the forestry department to help us.”
A forestry official confirmed the corruption. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said it was difficult for his department to control the trade. “Government says [charcoal] traders should be arrested. That’s not practical. There is no law for that.” The official also said there are powerful individuals in the trade who would get staff fired if they caused trouble.
The villagers believe the co-operative is the best way to reduce poverty in the area. Belita Ngomano owns a small grocery shop near the juice factory. She and her husband opened the shop in 2009 with capital raised partly from selling tamarind fruits to the factory. She says, “The factory is the best tool to improve living conditions for many people here, if it can grow. So we hope government sees what we’re doing and gets these [charcoal] merchants out.”