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Sam McManus and Marcelo Biglia in Malawi

Sam McManus and Marcelo Biglia are currently in Malawi for the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on a solar panel project run by two local women. This is Sam’s first blog post.

Day 1-3: Our flight from London to Lilongwe  passed over the glittering lights of alexandria and Cairo. beyond the Horn Of Africa stretched out like an ink dark ocean. No city lights were visible, no streetlights crisscrossed the darkness. This is an area of the  world lit mostly by firelight. Malawi, our destination, is no exception.

Access to energy is a major problem in Africa. In Malawi only seven per cent of people have access to the electrical grid and those that do suffer regular blackouts due to the its unreliability. For the rest, the only way to cook and to light their homes is by wood burning.

As we left the small neat airport in Lilongwe after touching down the following morning  we passed an advertising hoarding featuring a beautiful smiling woman holding a computer mouse and reading ‘tel-click internet, you’re one click away from the world’.

Below the hoarding two middle aged women in traditional robes stood talking, piles of sticks nonchalantly balanced on their heads. Beyond them a bare landscape, save for the occasional vibrant splash of bougainvillea, stretched into the distance. On the horizon figures moved, hacking at the parched ground. The image was a study of the  contrast between the aspiration of a country wanting to enter the digital age and the limitiations that a lack of resources have on that aspiration.

The next day as we drove southwards  on the road to  Dedza we meet Mrs Danivai. She is returning from the forest carrying a tree trunk on her head, and a child strapped to her back. It is a remarkable balancing act. I ask her how often she has to go to collect wood;  ‘everyday’ she says, ‘four kilometres each way’. Like most Malawians Mrs Danivai has to make the trip in order to cook, heat and light her home. But as a result of this dependence on wood, an environmental catastrophe is underway. Malawi was once a country of natural abundance. Everything grew in its rich red soil. Papaya and mango groves covered most of the landscape. Over the past ten years it is estimated that half of Malawi’s trees have been cut down. Now many areas  are just dust and scrub with only the durable  grey Baobab trees dotting the landscape, spared as their wood can’t be burned.

Back in Lilongwe the next day we whizz around the city in the back of a taxi trying to find the World Bank offices. The city is an odd mixture of ramshackle corrugated housing and multi-storey futurist architecture. The World Bank building which we eventually find, looks like a spaceship about to take off. In her air conditioned penthouse office Sandra Bloemenkamp, the World Bank country chief, gravely lists the consequences of deforestation: wood becomes more difficult to source and more expensive, topsoil blows away making farming difficult and the Shire river, targeted by the World Bank and the Malawian government as a potential source of hydroelectricity may now not be viable as the banks erode and the river meanders. At the moment the World Bank is concentrating on securing the  existing small electric grid in order to attract industry and investment to the country. I ask Bloemenkamp  about the possibility of extending the  grid to rural villages where most Malawians live. Bloemenkamp laughs and tells me that is a long long way off.

For now the reliance of wood is set to continue. One measure of deforestation is the distance people have to travel to collect wood. Unless something is done, Mrs Danivai’s daily journey is set to get progressively longer. A group of Irish entrepeneurs and academics think they may have a solution to the problem. Tomorrow we are going to meet them.

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in blogs under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund are those of the journalist and / or their interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish Government.