Blue flame from biogas made from organic waste

At a village a couple of weeks ago I eavesdropped on a conversation between a group of women as they were having their communal lunch. In their discussion they unanimously agreed it is common nowadays for their households to miss breakfast and that they look forward to having lunch as the first meal of the day.  I had a quick assumption around scarcity of food as the reason of missing breakfast, but I later learned as the discussion continued that the women (who culturally prepare meals) walk long distances, taking several hours with some climbing mountains to fetch firewood. On my drive back to the city, I mused further on the issue and was contrasting with how most of the urban women have it easier as they just walk a few blocks to find small packages of charcoal ready for use. It was easy to conclude that the latter may have a more favorable situation at the expense of the former, especially with high urbanization rate of 4% and almost zero forest cover in the cities.

This perhaps is anecdotal evidence of the fact that 97% of Malawians depend on biomass (firewood and charcoal) as their primary source of cooking and heating fuel. The country faces serious and worsening linked problems of unsustainable energy supply and serious environmental, health and socio-economic costs. Despite prior work by government authorities and development partners on the policy and legislative framework, there is still rampant use of biomass fuel due to a lack of alternatives.

This is a complex issue so the lab team in Malawi is looking to support transition towards alternate cooking technology using a systems approach.  The plan is to leverage previous and current work by UNDP colleagues and other partners to dive deeper into the products (technology), demand, supply and grassroot innovations in the cooking energy space.

Alternative Products

From previous studies in Malawi, East and West Africa, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), sustainable charcoal   and briquettes or pellets top the list of recommendations as alternatives for domestic (in urban and peri-urban areas) and   institutional/industrial cooking and heating. The main insight will be understanding the technical performance of the technologies vis-à-vis the current biomass fuel. 

Demand Interventions

The team will focus at the onset on the urban population to have a manageable scope. Behavioral Insights (BI) techniques will be used to understand the barriers of adoption of the clean cooking technologies/ products. To intimately understand issues consumers, face as they cook in their natural spaces, a photovoice study will be used to provide preliminary data on which interventions will be designed for testing. Our initial assumptions on the barriers include high start-up cost, concerns on safety, limited awareness and food preferences.

Supply Side Interventions

We will work with producers and suppliers of the alternative cooking technology to support them in designing marketing strategies to increase reach and market penetration.  The scaling strategies will use insights generated from the BI initiative including addressing supply related bottlenecks.


Through solution mapping, some interesting solutions have been unearthed at grassroot level and some from innovators. These will be further studied and tested to understand how they work and how they can be scaled up. One of the universities (Chancellor College) has a prototype of a solar cooker that can cook beans in 45 minutes.  One secondary school plant its own bluegum trees (Eucalyptus globulus) for cooking and has rotating woodlots that are staggered to ensure continuous supply and replenishing of the trees. One start-up is testing a portable biogas digester that uses food waste to generate gas for cooking at a household level.

Key Considerations

There are some issues still in the grey and we are thinking through on how to address them. Any loss of livelihood for charcoal producers thus the need to think of alternative solutions. We have learnt from literature that households practice fuel stacking which means they use both clean cooking energy and biomass energy at the same time. Lastly there is a gender dynamic to be considered as women have direct experience with cooking technology as they do the actual cooking while men will make the investment/spending decision.

Please reach out to share your thoughts on our approach especially how we can improve, other key considerations we might have missed and any interesting innovations in the space.


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