Livelihood diversification: the role of charcoal production in southern Malawi

Harriet Smith, Malcolm Hudson, Kate Schreckenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)


Growing urban populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are increasing demand for charcoal. This paper presents a detailed case study of three communities supplying charcoal to Zomba, a medium-sized city in Southern Malawi. Using the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework to structure our analysis, we examine individuals' motivations for producing charcoal, assess the seasonality of charcoal production, how livelihood outcomes vary between men and women, and identify sources of vulnerability for charcoal producer livelihoods. Drawing on data from four focus group exercises in each community and a total of 42 semi-structured interviews, we identify direct (e.g. financial) and indirect (e.g. strengthening of social networks, improved access to goods and services, opportunities for livelihood diversification) benefits that contribute to reducing producers' vulnerability to financial insecurity and improve their livelihoods. Irrespective of the benefits obtained and the actions (e.g. prioritising charcoal production over farming) of producers, participants did not perceive charcoal production as a desirable activity because the work was illegal, stigmatised hard and dangerous. Producers' primary motivations for engaging in production were to provide income to meet one-off purchases of expensive items, respond to an income shock, or to meet recurrent seasonal needs. Under certain conditions women were more dependent on income from charcoal production than men, as they had fewer alternative income generating options available to them. There was no reported management of charcoal resources in the study area, therefore the environmental sustainability of charcoal production and its associated benefits are uncertain. Malawi's current de facto charcoal ban leads to enforcement activities that exacerbate livelihood risks and increase producers' vulnerability to income insecurity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-36
Number of pages15
JournalEnergy For Sustainable Development
Early online date12 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


Dive into the research topics of 'Livelihood diversification: the role of charcoal production in southern Malawi'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this