In the backyard of a small brown-bricked unfinished structure in the Kashima area of Mufumbwe, a rural district in North-Western Province, Zambia, is a group of women with different colourful Chitenges (wrappers) tied around their waists. Some are bending, while others are seated on a small bench, with their hands rigorously making dough out of some black solid mass. Their laboured breathing, contagious laughter, snatches of conversations, and hasty movements can be heard from a distance as they do their work.
“This is a mixture of burnt and ground agricultural wastes such as maize cobs, groundnut shells, cassava powder and water. We are making charcoal briquettes for sale, which is used as fuel for cooking,” says Sarah Mukanda, the group’s leader.
The group, which consists of 18 members meet four times a week at the same spot to make briquettes. They start their day as early as 8 am and make over 15 tonnes of briquettes in a day.
The briquettes are packed in 20 Kilograms bags and sold at K60 ($3.50) per bag. When business is good, the group makes up to K1, 000 which is equivalent to $59 weekly.
Half of the profit is shared among group members to help them buy basic needs for their households, while the other half goes to the group’s savings account of which the money is later shared after 12 months.
According to Sarah, similar life experiences and challenges brought the women together and they decided to form a corporative group called `Chiseke’ a Zambian-Lunda language word which means ‘Happiness’.
She tells AWiM News that the group has since its inception in 2019 come up with different business initiatives to earn a decent living and producing briquettes was one of their major activities.
Among group members are survivors of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), widows, single mothers and guardians of orphans and vulnerable children.
“We realised we were facing almost the same challenge, so we decided to form a group to support each other. Briquette making is one of the many things we do, we were privileged to have received training on how to make briquettes and a machine from the National Technology and Business Centre (NTBC),” she said.
She adds that making briquettes have also given the women a sense of self-worth and financial security, as they enjoy a ready market because the cost of their briquettes is much lower compared to other sources of energy.
“We no longer just sit back and ask for money from our husband, which is one of the major causes of GBV. We are also now contributing to the well-being of our families because we can make money and make savings from the briquette business. People in the community buy our products, as well as those from nearby districts,” she said.
National Technology and Business Centre (NTBC) Chief Executive Officer Dr Chitundu Kasase, whose agency is supporting the women group with capacity building, branding and marketing confirmed in a press query that the group was earning an income from the product.
“Initial market linkages were conducted within Mufumbwe and Solwezi districts respectively. With these efforts, Trident Foundation (Kalumbila Mine) procured all the available stock by end of the first quarter of 2021,” Dr Kasase said.
The group is not only helping the women find financial stability, but is also providing them with social support, as they share problems and console each other in times of difficulty whenever they meet to make briquettes.
One of the group members, Florence Kaumba recalls how the group stood by her when she was physically abused by her husband.
“I was severely beaten by my husband a few months ago, a few members of the women group, led by our leader confronted my husband and warned him.”
“Since then, my husband has never laid his hands on me again, the women told him that GBV is a very serious offence and that if he beat me again, they will report him to the police and he will be jailed,” Florence said.
Another member, Wana Njamba said the briquette business is also helping the women to protect the environment, as it is discouraging the cutting down of trees for charcoal and firewood in the area and promoting clean methods of cooking.
Wana notes that before she learnt how to make briquettes, she used firewood and charcoal to cook for her family, which was causing harm not only to her health but also to the environment.
“I also take some of the briquettes we make with me home. I no longer inhale the smoke that caused me to cough, I can now cook without worrying. The briquettes also help us to protect our environment so that people do not cut down trees for charcoal,” she said.
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an organisation working with the Forestry Department to ensure that Zambia`s forests are protected and sustainably managed, the country has the highest deforestation rate in Africa and is ranked 5th highest globally. This is because 90 per cent of Zambia’s population is dependent on charcoal and firewood for cooking.
Climate Change Activist Mwelwa Chileshe stresses that supporting women-led initiatives such as briquette making can help reduce deforestation in Zambia.
“Women are the first to respond to managing the environmental capital that surrounds them. From collecting water for cooking and cleaning, using the land for livestock, foraging for food in rivers and reefs, and collecting firewood. If such initiatives are fully supported, we can preserve trees from being cut. Trees help to protect soil from erosion,” she says.
At the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2021, bold commitments by countries to paving the way for gender-responsive climate response and making women more ‘resilient’ to the precarious impact of the crisis was a matter of the moment.
And earlier this year in March, during a UN Commission on the Status of Women 66th session meeting, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Anderson also emphasised the need to put women at the heart of climate and environmental decisions making.
“We have had enough of male-dominated solutions. Enduring a just transition to a green, sustainable future requires gender-responsive approaches to reorienting finance flows and economic models and investing in resilience and capacity-building,” Ms Anderson said.
The Zambian Government recognizes this call for gender-responsive approaches to addressing climate change by nations.
In an exclusive interview, Green Economy and Environment Minister Engineer Collins Nzovu said Government is prioritizing women-led initiatives that are aimed at mitigating climate change.
The Minister noted that just like in other countries in the world, climate change in Zambia affects the most vulnerable sectors of society, which are mainly women.
He said Government has partnered with various stakeholders to support climate change-related initiatives by women.
“We have so many plans in place and supporting women initiatives is something that we are actively pursuing as Government. For your information, we have partnered with USAID and other partners to support the t production of briquettes.
“So any efforts, particularly in this direction, are very welcome and as Government, we will support the women even in a bigger way so that they can increase production of the briquettes because such initiatives speak directly to reducing deforestation in the country,” Engineer Nzovu said.
Hopefully, other countries will emulate Zambia in supporting women lead initiatives that support climate resilience.
This is also in line with one of the African Green Stimulus Programme’s key elements- Enhancing Climate Action which calls on countries to support the implementation of Climate Change programmes.
Women have a critical role to play in addressing climate change, by being the engine for climate initiatives and their engagement in every process of proffering solutions to climate change can never be over emphasized.
Supporting women’s climate change initiatives such as making briquettes by women in Mufumbwe District, is key to working towards more gender-responsive climate solutions that address structural inequalities, while also pursuing the transition to a greener economy.
This article is part of African Women in Media (AWiM)/UNEP Africa Environmental Journalism Programme