Food and fuel : a hidden dimension in human nutrition : a study on the relationship between nutrition security and fuelwood availability in Ntcheu District, Malawi

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Fuelwood is the main source of energy for rural households in developing countries and is predominantly used for food preparation and processing. Due to rapid deforestation, the supply of fuelwood is threatened. Many factors influence household food and nutrition security, but so far the role of fuelwood shortages has received little attention. Nutrition security has three main aspects (food security, care and health conditions); it is a prerequisite to the nutritional security of the individual, that these are favourable. The relationship between fuelwood availability and nutrition security is determined by the coping strategies chosen. These may comprise increase in collection time, reduction in amount of fuelwood used and switch to alternative fuels (Chapter 1). These strategies may affect food supply, food preservation, preparation and distribution, income generation and food consumption, all of which may result in a decrease in quality and quantity of the food consumed (Chapter 2). However, most of the existing literature is based on limited research or anecdotal evidence, and scientific evidence for these propositions is still scarce.

The purpose of this research was to describe and analyse the relationship between fuelwood availability and nutrition. The study was a joint project of the Department of Human Nutrition, Wageningen Agricultural University, and the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and was affiliated with the Centre for Social Research, Zomba. Field work was carried out among the Ngoni population in Ntcheu District, Central Region of Malawi, from 1990 to 1992. Study households originated from four villages selected on distance from woodlands, being less than 1.5 km, (Muuso), 2.5-3 km (Kachinjika), 4-6 km (Chimpuza) and more than 6 km (Magola). The area was characterized by nutrition insecurity (Chapter 3), overwhelming dependence on cereals for energy intake (Chapter 7) and moderate fuelwood scarcity (Chapter 4).

With increasing distance from woodlands, households initially collected further away, spending more time on collection (Chapter 4). When woodlands had to be reached much further away, they returned to nearby places needing less time and switched to lower- quality wood. Households within the same village differed in collection strategies particularly as regards collection distance and collection frequency. These strategies determined collection time, type of fuel used and amount of wood collected, which factors were highly interdependent. Female labour availability was a strong determinant of the strategy that was followed and especially households with a labour deficit economized on collection time, reduced the amount of wood collected and switched to inferior fuels.

In the following chapters, studies on the relationship between the three main strategies (switch to alternative fuels, increase in collection time, reduction in fuel use) and nutrition are described. Chapter 5 reports on a study of wood quality and preferences for types of wood in relation to food preparation and diet composition. Women preferred splitwood and branches and were reluctant to use twigs and maize stalks because, among others, the former yield more charcoal of better quality with a longer burning time. Preparing dishes with splitwood and branches require less time and fuel. Time studies, however, showed that the use of twigs did not prolong cooking time. However, the use of twigs prohibited women from doing other household chores as twigs need close attention to maintain the fire. Twigs cannot serve as fuel for dishes needing long cooking times (such as beans) so that, as a consequence, these are dropped from the dietary pattern. The dish nsima accompanied with relish was the mainstay of the diet, and was hardly left out.

Chapter 6 shows that the impact of an increase in time spent on fuelwood collection is seasonal and depends on the presence of other labour constraints. Women gave priority to food production and labour input in agriculture was never reduced, but time for resting, food processing, and, during the rainy season, for food preparation and food purchase was decreased. No evidence was found that women spent more working hours, omitted activities from their daily pattern or received more help from others during fuelwood collection days. This suggests that women were just more busy during fuelwood collection days. The increase in wood collection at the expense of resting may imply an increase in energy requirements of women. A reduction in time spent on food-related activities may affect household food availability.

Chapter 7 deals with the relationship between fuel use and food consumption. A decrease in fuel use is associated with a reduced intake of cooked cereals in the form of a decrease in snacking or in the amount of cereals cooked, and with a reduced bean intake. This effect is mainly visible in the post-harvest season, when fuelwood forms a determinant for food intake. In the rainy season, this association is mainly determined by the relatively low food availability. Especially the reduction of bean intake is a point of concern in view of the already overwhelming dependence on cereal and the relatively marginal quality of the food.

In Chapter 8 the relationship found between a decreasing fuelwood availability and nutrition security are discussed according to the different aspects mentioned in the model introduced in Chapter 1. The results clearly show that already under conditions of moderate fuelwood scarcity a decreasing fuelwood availability affects nutrition security. The impact is highly dependent on other factors such as food availability, labour availability and labour constraints emerging from other problems than fuelwood shortage. The results of the present study give several starting points for methodologies to be used in future research and for development efforts intended to promote both fuelwood supply and nutrition security. More information is needed on the relationship between food and fuel in urban areas and in rural areas with different agro-ecological, dietary and anthropometric characteristics. Methodologies to be used in such studies are suggested. In view of the interrelationship between fuelwood, food and labour the effects of a decreasing fuelwood availability should not only be a point of concern for nutrition and health projects but also for rural development efforts in general concerning reforestation, agriculture and labour. Fuelwood shortage means that a compromise has to be made between agricultural, ecological, nutritional and women's aims.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Hautvast, J.G.A.J., Promotor
  • Hoorweg, J.C., Promotor, External person
  • den Hartog, A.P., Promotor, External person
Award date14 Jun 1994
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789054852452
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 1994


  • economics
  • foods
  • food supply
  • nutrition
  • food production
  • food preparation
  • cooking
  • forestry
  • fuelwood
  • fuels
  • wood
  • plants
  • malawi
  • cookery


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