Ethiopian Women and Fuelwood

My Ride to Entoto

Women hauling fuelwood near Addis Ababa

Women hauling fuelwood near Addis Ababa

I just stumbled upon an article from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, written by one of my most idolized, favorite policy-focused scholars, Calestous Juma.

In this article, Juma touches on the fact that in Uganda, women are doing all the work.

“According to a study on Africa, women hauled more than 80 tons of fuel, water and agricultural produce for a distance of 1 km a year.  Men, on the other hand, carried only 10 tons a year. The political impetus for such inequities is often driven by the low level of access to agricultural technology and skills.”

Unfortunately, women are hauling all the wood in the Horn of Africa as well. This was observed first hand during my field work experience in Ethiopia.

As my driver and I traveled up to Entoto – a high altitude monastery right outside of Addis Ababa, I saw women walking down the mountain with loads of tree branches on their shoulders and back. Paradoxically, on that same day, I saw young men on motorcycles with similar sized piles of wood on the backs of their motor vehicles. Yes, the men were working too – carrying fuel wood. The difference was – the men had technical assistance.

According to Guerrilla Aid, the women living near Addis Ababa, hike roughly 18 miles a day collecting wood to be sold in the market carrying packs of wood that weigh up to 70 Ibs.

“They begin their hike at 3 am, collecting fuelwood in the forests, loading their backs for a long day’s trek along a trail that is usually thick with mud, dung, and rocks.”

 “They travel very quickly, sometimes racing against the clock, assuring their day’s journey will be met with a receptive marketplace.  If for some reason the area is stocked, they continue onward until they can sell their wood for only about $2 – the amount they need to feed their family that day.”

So what’s a sustainable alternative for these women?

 Volunteers from Guerilla Aid decided to purchase the wood packs from some of the Ethiopian women in order to experience the back-breaking job of carrying the wood themselves. After carrying the wood they realized a few things. First, the organization can’t change the economic situation in Ethiopia. Second, these women have to carry wood.  The volunteers also realized that carrying the wood isn’t the worst thing about the situation. Rather, the more unfortunate situation is that carrying large piles of wood everyday keeps the women from an education.

So what is their solution?

For one, Guerilla Aid would like to develop a pack that the women can use to strap the wood to – one with a heavy-duty pad to protect their back, padded straps to protect their shoulders, and a pocket for a Walkman or an MP3 Player.

The  volunteers want to coordinate with a group in Addis, the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers, so that the women can go and get their packs and update their walkman or iPod with educational materials… i.e, books on tape, English lessons, music – anything to make their experience a bit more tolerable, and to give them a basic education.  They are looking for a group to help them develop and make this pack, as well as a lead with Apple, Sony, or a group like Berlitz to help with the education portion of it.

Women – The frontline innovators

In such a resilient environment as East Africa where women have historically (mostly silently) incorporated mechanisms for surviving droughts, conflicts and changing markets – I wonder what types of innovations women have developed for themselves with regards to fuelwood, labor and energy?

My hope is to spend more time looking into how women have empowered themselves with solutions that eliminate these back-breaking activities and thereby enhance their ability to provide for their homes. I welcome your ideas any solutions you come across.

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