Malian women creating alternatives to charcoal and firewood

Homemakers in Mali are making a conscious shift to sustainable, environment-friendly kitchen products to tackle the climate crisis and their financial struggles.

by Soumaïla Diarra

This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.

Aissata Coulibaly’s smile fades as she starts talking about charcoal and firewood used for cooking. The cost of coal has become a burden to many women in Bamako, the capital of Mali.  “Since the death of my husband I take care of my six children on my own by managing to sell cereals in a nearby shop but it has been closed for more than a month,” she says.

In this West African country, one of the poorest in the world, women like Aissata are innovating to reduce their consumption of charcoal and wood. “Charcoal is expensive in the market so I use a roll of wire at the bottom of my stove to slow down charcoal combustion,” she says as she sits in a corner of her backyard that serves as an outdoor cooking area.

Using alternatives to charcoal and wood is more than a matter of economic survival for Malian women. There is growing consciousness about the climatic challenges of their consumption habits. “We need to learn about new techniques that reduce deforestation. I know that even the cycling droughts and other environmental difficulties that we are facing in our country are due to deforestation,” says Aissata.

As per a study by the African Development Bank for its 2013-22 Strategy, charcoal and firewood account for more than 78% of Mali’s energy needs. The study’s double objective is to promote “inclusive and increasingly greener growth”. 

Aissata Coulibaly using the iron roller at home. ©Soumaïla Diarra.

Mali’s reliance on charcoal and firewood is accentuated by the demographic surge and the expansion of big cities like Bamako, which counts more than three million inhabitants. In 2011, the Malian population was estimated to be over 14 million people. It has now increased to nearly 20 million. The high energy demand of urban and rural populations is a difficult burden for the fragile Malian ecosystem. The government estimates that each year the country loses more than 100,000 hectares of forest due to deforestation and the consumption of firewood and charcoal. As a result, forests are disappearing in Mali.

Deforestation is causing a surge in the price of coal and firewood. A 50 kg bag of charcoal is sold at 5,000 CFAF (around US$5), an expense that many households are unable to afford in addition to the basic necessities such as rice and cereals. “We cannot live beyond our means. So, I use the iron roller to reduce the charges and balance the income with the expenses,” comments Aissata.

Women from low-income families depend on the wire roll for cooking. This simple pile of ferrous filaments is available in the capital’s markets at a low price, costing 200 CFAF (about 40 cents US$) per day. “Without the roller, you need at least 500 CFAF (about 1 US$) per day,” Aissata explains. Another advantage is that the roller can last up to four months.

This roll of wire is made in the outskirts of Bamako by craftsmen. The iron threads come from used vehicle tires that children pick up from the streets or from garbage dumps. “We burn the tires to recover the iron filaments which we sell to the craftsmen who make the rolls,” said Ousmane Diakité, a 12-year-old boy who dropped out of school.

The method of extracting the filaments is not environmentally-friendly as it produces polluting black gas. However, for women struggling to make ends meet, the best way to reduce the consumption of wood and charcoal is to use the iron rollers. “My mother also uses them to avoid buying a lot of charcoal,” says Ousmane.

Creating alternatives to coal

According to many women associations, climate solutions should be provided by the government so that people can abandon the practices that harm the environment. Meanwhile, Malian women are mobilising at every level. For instance, the Association of Women Engineers of Mali (AFIMA) has ​​manufactured a cooker that uses the sun’s rays as fuel.

Fatoumata Camara, engineer at AFIMA, unpacks the solar cooker. © Soumaïla Diarra

Fatoumata Camara, a member of the association, says that the cooker is very efficient because of its simplicity. “I do my kebabs in the solar cooker without any problem.” At the association’s headquarters in the administrative neighbourhood of Bamako, women engineers of Mali work to reverse the worsening climate and its related effects including deforestation.

Zero carbon solution

Since 2001, Malians have been using the affordable solar cooker, according to the association’s members. The smallest model costs 7,500 CFAF (about 8 US$). It is made of cardboard with the aluminium sheets inside which reflect the sun’s rays onto a nickel cup placed in the middle. The black colour retains the heat which helps to cook the food inside the painted cup.

Mali is a landlocked country with an area of 1,241,238 square km and much of its territory is desert and arid land. As sunlight lasts approximately 10 hours per day, solar energy devices are an important opportunity for the country.

Fatoumata is full of praise for the solar cooker as she explains that the kitchen kit can be used anywhere in Mali. “It’s clean and hygienic. Though we cannot prepare all types of Malian dishes in it, there are still a lot of recipes that we can cook, such as oily rice or boiled eggs,” she adds.

However, solar cookers, which emit zero carbon, can’t be found everywhere in Bamako, the largest city in the country. Women like Aissata have never heard of that solar kit. This is due to the absence of extension work which exceeds the capacities of the Women Engineers Association. “We conducted an exhibition and other public demonstrations last December, and many women expressed their interest. But they felt the price was high,” reports Fatoumata.

One of the challenges in making the solar cookers accessible is the production cost. As the aluminium foils are imported from the Netherlands, the costs are high and the Women Engineers Association is unable to market a more affordable device. Also, the models are often small while some Malian families have several dozen members. 

A miracle basket

To better meet the demand of these large families, women engineers will have to build large solar cookers. According to Anna Dembélé, a trainer with AFIMA, parabolic devices are adapted to reflect solar rays to heat large pots used in the Malian households.

Fatoumata Camara shows the inside of the thermos basket. © Soumaïla Diarra

In 2006, women engineers in Mali began to manufacture and market the thermos basket, another alternative to firewood and charcoal consumption. This kitchen kit consists of a reed basket made by local artisans. Women engineers buy these baskets from craftspeople and transform them by padding them with cotton fibre and a black fabric layering, which works as an insulator and helps maintain the temperature of the product.

The idea for the basket came from a Dutch-aid worker who trained the members of the Women Engineers Association on how to make a thermos basket. The association is now working with local NGOs to provide cooking classes and lessons on how to use the basket. The device is well-known across the country, especially in Bamako, as during periods of high heat the need for the thermos increases across the country.

If we continue to cut trees as we are doing now, I wonder how we are going to feed the country in 20 or 30 years.

– Aissata Coulibaly

Women engineers are yet to conduct a study on the number of trees they can save because of the basket. Women start cooking on a stove using charcoal or firewood, and once the food is boiled at 100°C for five minutes, they transfer the pot inside the basket which is then closed to complete the cooking process. 

“Without the basket, I often used four bags of charcoal a month but with the thermos basket and the solar cooker I only use two bags,” says Anna who trains women on how to make the thermos basket and the solar cooker. “You pay 100 CFAF (about 1 cent of US$) for coal and it can help you to cook both rice and sauce,” she continues.

The thermos basket is suitable for the needs of large families who use it the most, according to women engineers. In addition to cooking, the basket keeps food, ice, water and liquid food at cool temperatures. The thermos basket, costing 15,000 CFAF (around 15 US$), is designed from materials that are not imported. Local farmers supply cotton fibre, artisans make the basket, and women engineers manufacture it in their workshop.

Obstacles to overcome

Women engineers deplore the lack of support from the Malian government to popularise their products. The members of the association, who are also employed in other departments, do not have the necessary time to seek funds to market the thermos basket and the solar cooker. The Global Environment Fund helped them spread the word about their products in the northern region of Gao in 2016, and an American-funded project enabled them to cover other regions.

One of the challenges regarding the thermos baskets and the solar cooker is cultural resistance. Many in Malian society still believe in old traditions, according to which a family’s prosperity is linked to the traditional hearth made of three stones. This resistance comes mainly from men who do not have an open mind to accept changes, according to women engineers. 

Abdoulaye Konté, a butcher in Bamako, thinks that the alternatives to charcoal and firewood may not be successful as Malians are attached to the traditional methods of cooking. “We cannot abandon the traditional hearth. We don’t pay anything to get it. More importantly, our parents, who left it to us, attached strong importance to the three stones used to make the hearth, it is representative of a family’s unity,” he says. 

Aissata, like most homemakers in Bamako, has never seen the solar cooker and the thermos basket up close. But the news of technologies that use solar power is already making these women dream. 

Meanwhile, Aissata’s priority is to continue using the simple roll of wire in the back of her stove to prepare food for her children. Despite the difficulties she encounters in providing for her six children, she cares about what will happen to Mali in the coming decades.

 “If we continue to cut trees as we are doing now, I wonder how we are going to feed the country in 20 or 30 years,” she says. 

“We need the authorities to get involved so that every woman can have these devices. It’s good for our spending, but it’s also good for the country that no longer needs to cut down trees.”