How Deadly Charcoal is Bought and Sold in an African Market

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Xipamanine is a sprawling, labyrinthine marketplace in the heart of Maputo, Mozambique's capital. On the street outside, tinny music blares and a bustling throng mills around. Inside, a series of winding corridors leads you through a maze of colorful booths that boast a wide variety of wares: shoes, stereo equipment, coconuts, toys, tomatoes, rugs, seeds, nuts, goats, and charcoal. Lots of charcoal.

You can buy it wholesale, in a gigantic sack with a month's worth of cooking fuel, for about $20. An entire open air section of the market is dedicated to storing these bags; they're stacked in imposing dust-covered piles. Or, you can buy smaller portions from vendors who buy the big loads, in tins as cheap as $0.45. The catch is, you'll need about three of those tins to cook meals for a a single day. Most Mozambicans opt for the latter, since they typically make between $100-200 a month.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

We were first led to Xipamanine by representatives from CleanStar Mozambique, a company that's hoping to eventually make much of the market for charcoal obsolete. After all, the stuff is a leading cause of death from respiratory illness and a top driver of deforestation in the region.

But it's also what families have been using to cook for as long as anyone can remember. I returned to the market a day later, along with Triple Pundit's Jennifer Boynton and a translator, and here's what we found: Ask any given person in the market, and they'll tell you, yes, they cook with charcoal, and that it's safe to do so. We spoke to perhaps a dozen different people in the market, and each offered a variant of the same blunt response.

Virginia, a mother of three who sells a variety of nuts, vegetables and seeds at the market, says she always uses charcoal to cook. Robert, a young man who rounds up discarded cardboard boxes for recycling, says that coal is the "most secure" and safest way to cook, when compared to wood and gas. Amelia, who actually sells the tin-sized portions of charcoal, tells us that sometimes the smoke makes her cough, and that she gets pains in her chest, but that regardless, cooking with coal is safe. Charles, a boy of about 10, says he'll regularly spend an hour using coal to cook his favorite food, beans.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Many of these folks cook indoors, in poorly ventilated houses. Exposure to that indoor air pollution kills 2 million people a year, most of them children. Millions more suffer from asthma and other health woes. But don't blame Amelia or Virginia—Mozambique is one of Africa's poorest nations, and the vast, vast majority of its residents have no access to health education. The government is woefully under-funded. And there simply aren't any other affordable, available options for cooking fuel. However, scarcity and booming demand is driving the price of charcoal up rapidly in Maputo—the cost has doubled in just a decade.

Which is why CleanStar believes it can offer a good alternative—clean burning cookstoves fueled by ethanol derived from cassava. Those cookstoves cost $30, about 10 times as a regular cookstove (which typically run for $3-4). But they burn cleaner, create less of a mess, and, importantly, heat up instantly—charcoal stoves take between 20 and 30 minutes to fire up. And it's these elements that CleanStar Mozambique emphasizes when its team makes the case for their stoves—not the health and environmental benefits.

CleanStar has assembled a team of local marketing strategists and salesmen to make the pitch for the superior, cleaner, and much more expensive stove. They've created a brand, Ndzilo, which means "fire" in the local dialect, and opened two stores in target neighborhoods to sell the stoves and the ethanol fuel. Check out Boynton's post on the topic at Triple Pundit for an idea of how the process works. I'll dig deeper into the local operation in my next post.

But for now, suffice to say that CleanStar has it's work cut out for it—cooking with charcoal is a deeply engrained social norm that will be difficult to disrupt.

Tags: Africa

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