Criminals by necessity: the risky life of charcoal transporters in Malawi

Harriet Elizabeth Smith, Felix Eigenbrod, Dalitso Kafumbata, Malcolm D. Hudson, Kate Schreckenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


The charcoal industry in sub-Saharan Africa plays a substantial role providing growing urban populations with domestic energy. However, concerns about its environmental impacts have led to punitive policies, resulting in the criminalisation of charcoal-based livelihoods. One factor constraining the development of more effective policy approaches is limited data on the impacts of regulations on the socio-economic outcomes of different value chain actors. We focus on one group of actors: charcoal transporters, who supply charcoal to Zomba, a medium-sized city in Southern Malawi. Drawing on a survey of 201 transporters, we find that they are attracted by fast cash-in-hand, low capital requirements and the lack of alternative local employment opportunities. Both men and women participate, yet transport methods are gendered. Men, who typically transport charcoal on a bicycle, earn three times as much per week as those who carry charcoal on their heads, the main method used by women. However, bicycle users incur higher financial risk due to costs associated with confiscations and damage to bicycles. Unlike in larger cities, an urban elite does not dominate the supply chain in Zomba. We argue that punitive targeting of small-scale charcoal transporters serves only to push them deeper into poverty and does nothing to contribute to sustainable resource management.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalForests, Trees and Livelihoods
Early online date17 Aug 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • forestry, forest management, livelihoods, governance, income generation, supply chain, charcoal, NTFP (Non Timber Forest Product), energy, informal markets

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