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Through conducting a market assessment for modern energy cooking services in Malawi incorporating a top-down perspective (through an online survey and interviews with experts) and a bottom-up perspective (through household surveys and focus groups) this study showed the variety of cooking practises in different areas of Malawi (see for a detailed description of the methodology).

Household level

Cooking fuels, devices and expenditures

The following sections summarise the findings of the household survey, including differences in cooking fuel and device preferences, expenditures on cooking fuels and cooking habits.

Urban (100% grid connected)

Main cooking fuel:
Electricity (93%), 14% also use charcoal, 12% also use LPG
Other devices:
Kettle (36%), Rice cooker (21%), Microwave (14%)
4000-8000 MWK per capita per month, weekly top-ups.
6kg at 15000 MWK or 9kg at 25000 MWK
twice a month – every three months
Cooking habits:
Primarily cook with electricity (use charcoal only as a backup fuel during blackouts). Do not cook some meals (approximately 1/3 of the time) particularly at weekends.

Peri-urban (100% grid connected)

Main cooking fuel:
Charcoal (71%), electricity (57%)
Other devices:
Kettle (50%)
2000-6000 MWK per capita per month, monthly top-ups
1000-3000 MWK per capita per month, small bags at 300-500 MWK daily, large bags at 3000-5000 MWK weekly/monthly
Cooking habits: Three roughly equal groups use charcoal only, electricity only or both. Almost always cook breakfast and dinner, 1/3 of the time do not cook lunch

Rural (off-grid with recently installed minigrid)

Main cooking fuel:
Firewood (97%)
Other devices:
None (gather wood for free)
Cooking habits:
Always cook all meals and almost always use firewood (a very limited number do use charcoal in small quantities).

Additional findings

Core dishes

Meals in Malawi’s urban, peri-urban and rural areas are commonly made up from 10 core dishes which constitute 90% of all the dishes collected in the survey (listed below). Modern energy cooking devices would need to be proven appropriate for cooking these dishes (at a minimum) in Malawian contexts in order to be successful at a large scale. There was also variation in the popularity of dishes between the urban, peri-urban and rural samples.

Breakfast: Tea/Coffee, porridge, potatoes, eggs
Lunch: Nsima/rice, beans, vegetables, fish, eggs, meat/poultry

Charcoal and firewood are undesirable fuels

It appears that Malawian cooks prefer not to use charcoal when they have electricity as an alternative. Focus group responses agreed: charcoal is used either for “cooking meals when there is no electricity” or “cooking meals when it’s raining” and both charcoal and firewood are considered dirty and bad for health. The long-time taken to start a charcoal fire is also considered inconvenient.

Focus group responses recorded (left) from gathering in local school (right)

Practitioner level

Opportunities and barriers for modern cooking

Interactions with clean cooking experts from Malawi’s National Cookstove Steering Committee through an online survey and interviews showed that there are several significant barriers to both LPG and electric cooking in Malawi, and also highlighted the areas of opportunity.  A summary of these findings is shown in the following tables.

National Cookstove Steering Committee logo (left) and meeting attended by MECS researcher in November 2019 (right)
Summary of barriers to LPG and electric cooking in Malawi
Summary of short-medium term opportunities for LPG and electric cooking in Malawi

Roadmap for modern energy cooking in Malawi

There is a latent demand for fast, clean, controllable and convenient cooking options in Malawi but the market for energy cooking services in Malawi is currently small. Therefore in the immediate-short term (perhaps the next 2-5 years) efforts to propagate improved biomass stoves must continue coupled with educating cooks in using more efficient cooking practises and developing solutions to the technical, economic and social barriers to modern cooking.

In the short-medium term, electric cooking is perhaps most suited in mini-grids, but their propagation is likely to be a slow process and their technical capacity and affordability with respect to electric cooking needs further study. LPG is perhaps most suited in urban areas but efforts to improve convenience, affordability and public perception are required to effect significant transition towards this fuel. In parallel, research and development of solutions to improve Malawi’s electricity grid and options for bridging power outages should be continued.

In the medium-long term, it is possible that affordable mini-grid electric cooking penetration from rural areas would eventually meet the spread of LPG from urban areas to provide coverage across most locations. Grid supported electric cooking will require innovative engineering solutions and/or large electrical infrastructure projects to allow electric cooking to grow adoption rates in urban areas.

This is likely to be a non-binary, inhomogeneous process, with some households and businesses finding a use for a variety of different cooking fuels and devices depending on their preference, application and context. It is therefore important to consider the spread of modern energy cooking services as a gradual process of “cleaning the cooking stack”, gradually reducing the amount of biomass use through an increase in modern energy cooking through various means and devices.

Recommendations and areas for further study

Technical and economic investigations of LPG and electric cooking are needed in both rural areas (on mini-grids) and in urban areas (on the national grid). This must include improving understanding of the affordability of electric cooking on mini-grid tariffs, and system requirements and cost of upgrade/construction of mini-grids which can support increased demand due to electric cooking. Further study is needed to understand the applicability of modern energy cooking devices to the Malawian context, particularly devices which are uncommon and unconventional to Malawi such as electric pressure cookers and rice cookers. This must include user testing of modern cooking devices by Malawians when cooking staple foods to understand their compatibility with local cuisine.