In Zambia, the $500m charcoal-trade puts women at a dilemma of earnings vs climate

Marian Pule, 38, threads a huge needle around a tall sack that contains burnt black charcoal. 

“It takes two days to fill one sack with charcoal; two more to sew it,” she says in Chirundu, the busiest border town in Zambia - right on the border with the republic of Zimbabwe to the south.

Special tree

For thousands of women across the southern African country of Zambia, one of the world’s poorest nations, burning the endangered Miombo species trees to harvest black charcoal fuel for resale is the biggest livelihood earnings opportunity in a region with some of the world's most punishing female unemployment and household poverty rates in homes headed by women.

Miombo species trees cover 2.7 million kilometres of woodland across central and southern Africa. 

Yet for thousands of women like Pule, there’s a troubling dilemma. 

“I have never heard of yearly COP global climate change summits; I’m willing to change my behavior for the environment, but it’s not easy for us,” she says.

She admits that iron axes that slush down Miombo hardwood forests into logs that can be burned into charcoal are fueling an annual loss of 1.87Mha of forest cover across Zambia. Charcoal, which is used in 90% of Zambia homes when burnt in tight spaces, produces harmful carbon monoxide gas. Charcoal users in Zambia are also saddled with respiratory problems (asthma; bronchitis; tuberculosis). Women and children are the most vulnerable to toxic fumes, says Dr Stanely Samusodza, a public health officer who has worked extensively across Zambia.

“But as women, what else can we do? If I prepare one sack of charcoal and stand it beside the highway, that’s a healthy K400 ($20) sale, a food and medicines lifeline for my children and household,” she says. 


In Zambia, in particular the Center for International Forestry Research says the informal charcoal industry makes up 2, 3% of GDP and employs 41 000 rural residents full time, the majority being women. “Without charcoal money; we go hungry,” Pule says.

In Zambia, grassroots projects are underway to wean the poor from charcoal use by producing and providing cleaner, safer wood chip stoves and distributing them to women who do most of the cooking in Zambia´s households. For example, UNDP is working with rural women, switching them to clean cooking stoves and educating them that it is important to help slow forest destruction and consider alternatives. Also, across Zambia, rural electrification, a program of the government, is accelerating, especially in women-headed households, intending to connect 51% of Zambia´s rural households by 2030, and thus wean the poor women from dirty charcoal fuel.

“Such is the dilemma of poor nations like Zambia in the global climate de-carbonization drive. Millions of low income populations depend on forest cutting for fuel, timber, farming yet at the same time, forest destruction will accelerate tree cover, heat up the climate and deepen floods,” says Shamiso Mupara, founder of the tree-planting movement Environment Buddies and past delegate to the COP 26 climate summit in 2021. 

Which way now?

As for Pule, the charcoal trader, the dilemma is present daily - “stop the charcoal trade, we go hungry along with our kids. Harvesting trees for charcoal and we end up with no forest soon.”