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18 August 2023

Breaking barriers in the adoption of clean cooking technologies in Malawi: The role of finance, awareness and collaboration

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A city championing transformation

Malawi, like many other African countries, is facing significant challenges related to energy and cooking practices. A large majority of its population relies heavily on traditional biomass fuels, such as firewood and charcoal, for cooking, which often has adverse effects on health, the environment, gender, and the nation’s economic well-being. National and subnational policies play a vital role in Malawi’s transition to clean cooking technologies.

Malawi has been proactive in implementing policies to promote clean cooking technologies. However, several barriers hinder the successful adoption and widespread use of such technologies.   Through the Sustainable Energy Solutions for Africa (SESA) project, ICLEI Africa, using both desktop research and interviews, examined the key policy barriers and potential solutions to accelerate clean cooking technology adoption in Malawi.

The findings focused on:

  1. political and institutional challenges,
  2. economic and financial barriers,
  3. social and cultural obstacles,
  4. technology and infrastructure limitations,
  5. environmental factors,
  6. legal and regulatory issues, and
  7. awareness and information gaps,

to delve into the complexities surrounding the transition to clean cooking in Malawi. 

Political and institutional challenges

The Malawian government recognises the importance of transitioning from biomass reliance to sustainable and efficient technologies. Initiatives such as the Malawi Clean Cooking Association and strategic partnerships demonstrate the government’s commitment. However, limited resources, capacity constraints, and coordination challenges hinder progress at the institutional level. The research revealed that integrating clean cooking across different departments’ policies and improving cross-level coordination could enhance efforts and resource sharing. In addition, it would be good for government leaders to leverage partnerships with microfinance institutes, local businesses, community-based organisations, and religious leaders to support the development and enhancement of viable financial mechanisms to scale up clean cooking.

Economic and financial barriers

Access to finance presents a significant challenge for small-scale producers and end-users of clean cookstove technology in Malawi. Limited economic resources, upfront costs, and collateral requirements hinder adoption. In addition, making a case for adopting improved cookstoves and sustainable fuels to poor users is challenging due to the higher buying and maintenance costs involved, which may be unaffordable for them. Companies dealing with sustainably harvested biomass face additional expenses related to production, transportation, and retail. In contrast, those dealing with illegally collected biomass avoid these costs, making it difficult for sustainable woodfuels to compete effectively. Shifting from heavily subsidised schemes to affordable paid models, offering subsidies to the most vulnerable households, promoting partnerships with the private sector, and exploring alternative financing options such as credit guarantees and microfinance can help overcome economic barriers. Additionally, guidance and capacity building on credit options and business models like pay-as-you-go or rent-to-buy can enhance access to finance for the clean cooking sector. In addition, what emerged from the research is that using existing logistics, distribution, and marketing structures is an ideal way to expand clean cooking initiatives and support livelihood creation. 

Social and cultural obstacles

In terms of socio-cultural factors, it emerged that limited access, affordability, and cultural preferences impede the uptake of clean cooking technologies in rural Malawi. Fuel stacking, where households continue to use traditional methods alongside improved cookstoves, is common. Engaging civil society organisations and private sector players, promoting efficient cooking practices, and addressing gender dynamics in decision-making processes are crucial for behaviour change and widespread adoption. Peer-oriented awareness models can be used to target change agents within communities, including traditional leaders, to increase buy-in and sustainable uptake. A key point that came up during interviews is the potential to use existing structures like Village Development Committees and lead farmers – respected farmer leaders in the community – to impact behaviour change amongst their peers. These social structures can serve as entry points for introducing a new clean cooking technology and raising awareness.

Technology and infrastructure limitations

There is a good understanding of the technical mechanisms underpinning clean cooking, but a lack of maintenance facilities and an absence of standardised criteria for the quality and performance of improved cookstoves needs to be addressed to enable the scaling of clean cookstoves sustainably. Similarly, in terms of skill and labour, there is existing capacity and willingness to learn about clean cooking technology amongst the population of Malawi, however training programmes and technical standards require improvement to effectively harness the skill and labour potential. Innovations to increase the lifespan of cookstoves, promote local production, and establish standards are vital. Expanding distribution networks and leveraging existing marketing structures can enhance the viability of clean cooking technologies. Ensuring safety and quality through standardised testing, training, and certification processes can build trust among consumers. Furthermore, improving access to spare parts and maintenance facilities, especially in rural areas, is crucial for the long-term sustainability of clean cooking solutions.

Environmental factors

The main environmental challenges that clean cooking addresses in Malawi are widespread deforestation, illegal charcoal production, and limited knowledge of sustainable practices. To overcome these challenges, strategies such as alternative livelihoods, LPG promotion, and awareness campaigns can be used. Encouraging the use of sustainable biomass fuels like briquettes and pellets can reduce deforestation and ecosystem degradation. Partnering with local communities, raising awareness about the detrimental consequences of illegal activities, and providing support for transitioning to alternative livelihoods are important steps. In addition, policymakers and donors should recognise the potential of clean cooking in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and support policies that encourage its adoption.

Legal and regulatory issues

The Malawian government has established policies and plans recognising the need for clean cooking alternatives. However, inadequate regulation, limited law enforcement, and the absence of technical standards for improved cookstoves and renewable fuels pose obstacles. Strengthening legislation, addressing illegal activities, and implementing quality standards and procedures are essential for ensuring the effectiveness and safety of clean cooking technologies. Engaging with stakeholders, including producers and users, can help develop robust regulatory frameworks. Addressing counterfeiting and copyright issues, and promoting intellectual property rights protection can foster innovation and quality assurance for the clean cooking sector in the long term. 

Awareness and information gaps 

In terms of knowledge and awareness, the research showed that a limited understanding of improved cookstoves contributes to low adoption rates. It’s important to implement targeted awareness campaigns, peer-oriented approaches, and engagement of local leaders and traditional structures as effective methods to raise awareness and educate communities. Leveraging common existing information-sharing channels, such as radio, television, posters at appropriate venues, and social media, can enhance outreach efforts. Some of the crucial aspects to include in awareness campaigns to increase the chance of effectiveness is providing guidance on the benefits, usage, maintenance, and financing options of clean cooking technologies. It’s important for awareness-raising campaigns to also emphasise the broader benefits of clean cooking, including reduced fuelwood consumption, improved health, and environmental conservation. It can be strategic to engage key influencers, including women’s groups, faith-based organisations, agricultural extension workers, and lead farmers to facilitate behaviour change and increase buy-in, especially in rural communities where word of mouth and social proof are key mechanisms for sharing ideas.

Overcoming the various barriers in Malawi requires a comprehensive approach involving collaboration between stakeholders, policy adjustments, financial innovations, awareness campaigns, and capacity-building initiatives. By addressing political, economic, social, technological, environmental, legal, and informational barriers, a path to transitioning to clean cooking in Malawi can be paved.

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