As Maria Kameta grew up in Malawi's rural Chisinga area, she watched, baffled, as villagers depleted forests to make charcoal to cook food for their families.
Women collected firewood for the three-stone fires which caused pollution and exposed their users to the risk of respiratory conditions.
“I saw how women were suffering to find energy – they were walking long distances to find firewood,” the 22-year-old told The National.
“Firewood became scarce, which means they had to spend hours searching.”
In 2022, her research into environmental projects led her to devise a clean cooking stove. It uses briquettes made of cheap materials such as waste paper and sawdust, as well as agricultural waste such as rice husks and maize stalks.
Maria, who lives with her mother, established the Mudzi Cooking Project, training more than 100 young women from her community to make the fuel briquettes.
She has now developed and built double-burner clean cookstoves in more than 500 households in her community.
“As a young person who was passionate about the environment, I felt there was something that could be done to change the situation. However, it should be something which was in favour of nature as well as the women,” she said.
She said the briquettes are made from locally available waste and are “environmentally friendly, effective and smoke-free”.
The World Bank estimates that deforestation reduced Malawi’s forest cover from 37 per cent of its land area in 1990 to 24 per cent in 2020.
The loss is attributed to agriculture expansion, tobacco farming, the timber industry and fuelling the country’s households.
About 90 per cent of Malawi’s almost 20 million population does not have access to electricity, according to Global Forest Watch, a web application that monitors the world's forests.
Even those who do have electricity, mostly in urban areas, rarely use it for cooking because of its cost.
Extreme weather, including floods and cyclones, have become more common in Malawi in the past half a decade.
In March 2019, the country was hit by Cyclone Idai, one of the deadliest tropical storms to be recorded in southern Africa. It killed more than 1,500 people and injured thousands while destroying infrastructure in Malawi.
In March, southern parts of Malawi were pummelled by Cyclone Freddy, which affected more than two million people in 15 districts, killing more than 1,000 and making nearly 700,000 homeless. Hundreds of people remain missing, Malawi's government said.
President Lazarus Chakwera said Malawi needed about $700 million to rebuild the trail of destruction left by the most recent tropical storm.
Faith Tambuli, who joined Maria's project in September 2022, said the project has transformed her life.
“In the past, I would spend hours cooking a single meal, but with the efficient stoves I can prepare meals in a short period of time. I am also free from respiratory problems,” the 22-year-old said.
“Besides, these stoves do not consume a lot of wood, with only a [little] wood I am able to cook the family meals. The stove has two burners, allowing me to cook two meals at once. Given the wood is scarce these days I was really burdened.”
In January 2023, the Malawian government passed a forestry law to regulate the use of charcoal, imposing hefty fines on its illegal use.
Tarcizio Kalaundi, a monitoring and evaluation officer at Malawi National Youth Network on Climate Change, said the government should help to expand projects such as Maria's.
“Where will people switch to if they stop using firewood and charcoal? People have no option. We need alternatives,” he said.
“It is good that young people are [campaigning] against deforestation. But how many people are using clean cookstoves in Malawi? There is a need to upscale the project from a community-based to a district or province-focused.”
Currently, Mudzi Cooking Project is working on extending the project, Maria said. “Once this is done, the Mudzi Cooking Project will reach out to other districts in Malawi.”