There was so much smoke in the bedroom John was suffocating. He thought the thatch roof of their house was on fire. He rushed out to check if his brothers and parents were still alive and found his mother in the kitchen preparing porridge for the kids. It was the first day of the new academic year. But he was struggling to breathe! His mom laughed and said, “It’s alright, son, we must get used to the smoke because plastics are our charcoal now. You know things have changed—it’s difficult to get charcoal nowadays, and if we happen to find some, prices have gone up from five thousand Malawian kwacha to fifteen thousand!”
“When did this happen?” John asked.
“You didn’t hear? The Malawian government is taking measures to jail anyone who makes charcoal from cutting down trees.” She was waiting for him to reply.
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
She grabbed more plastic bottles and plastic bags to add to the fire while John waited for an explanation.
“Do you remember the Sudanese boy who used to cut down trees and sell them to make money?” she asked him.
“Yeah, I remember him! But he doesn’t show up anymore. What happened to him?” he asked.
“He was beaten up and jailed for cutting down the small trees by the graveyard,” she said.
Suddenly they saw a big military lorry full of charcoal pass. “You see, the police caught some charcoal sellers who were trying to sell lots of charcoal to the people in the camp. So it’s very expensive to get charcoal nowadays, since cooking with charcoal is discouraged by the government. That means we must use plastics and bottles,” said his mother, adding, “but we can’t be spending money on that.”
John and his siblings were sent to collect more plastics for cooking dinner. It became their duty to go around the camp, collecting plastics, bottles, and mosquito nets.
Then John heard from a friend about a young man, Justin, who had invented the Kigonga, known as mbabula ya machenga, a charcoal burner that uses charcoal dust. He went to witness the wonder that was Kigonga. He couldn’t believe it when he saw charcoal dust producing a fire that people could use for cooking.
“Add more machenga and watch it produce more flames!” Justin ordered. Machenga, or charcoal dust, was added.
John admired Justin’s idea and asked if he could work with him. He saw in the Kigonga the salvation of many people in the camp and of their environment. Cooking with plastics was dangerous for your health. John was very worried about contracting lung cancer. And burning all those materials harmed the environment.
“Can you put up one hundred and fifty thousand Malawian kwacha to join the Kigonga production team?” John was asked.
“Yes, yes of course! Should I pay right now?” he said. John brought the cash and the contract was signed.
That day he bought his first Kigonga. He believed it would put an end to their suffocating at home every day and to the tears in their eyes, which made it look like they were constantly crying. The machenga was easily found, affordable at eight hundred kwacha for a full bag, and risk free. “Wow! Where did you get this from?” Everyone at John’s house was amazed to see a charcoal burner that used charcoal dust. “I bought it from Justin’s shop,” John said.
John told them about the agreement he had signed with Justin’s team. While he was talking, he was picking plastic bags and mosquito nets out of the ashes. The fan in the Kigonga blew a moderate amount of air. His mother cooked with the Kigonga that day. They were all overjoyed!
But soon they encountered a problem with the fan. The Kigonga used a cassette tape fan, which allowed charcoal dust to burn easier and quicker than an electric stove. It started to malfunction soon after John had bought it: after several minutes of cooking, the fan blade that blew air into the charcoal dust came loose. Without the blade, no flame would be produced. Justin’s team made the fan blades that were responsible for air circulation. They made them from metallic containers and attached them with used lollipop sticks. “It’s a clever way of keeping the air safe, but it gives me a headache! Why must we repair it now and then?” asked John’s mother.
John didn’t know how to reply. The next morning, he went to work with the team, hoping to return home that evening with some money in his pocket. After all, he had signed a contract as both an investor and an employee. While he was working, customers came in not to buy a Kigonga but to complain about it malfunctioning. All of the customers that day had the same complaint, about the fan blade, which kept coming loose again and again.
When he knocked off from work, he didn’t even have a penny in his pocket. He wasn’t only concerned about the money. He viewed the complaints foremost as evidence of the team’s failure, but also as a problem to be solved. He started to think about ways of making an alternative blade that would take the business to the next level.
He spent days and sleepless nights thinking about the problem, but it wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, the team had signed up to take part in an exposition. Their bank in Dzaleka, MyBucks, and various other organizations were coming to see the product with a view to investing.
Everyone in the team was excited. They were convinced that, once their innovative work was seen, the authorities would support them and the bank would grant them a loan. But John could see it panning out differently. In fact, he was afraid that the charcoal burner would malfunction during the exposition, which would torpedo the business.
Thank God they demonstrated their product skillfully, albeit not perfectly. The people who saw it were astonished to see a charcoal burner of this kind. Many people bought them, even if they didn’t understand how it worked, and John and his friends made a lot of money that day.
But John was not happy because he was preoccupied with finding a solution to the problem of the blades. “John, your dinner is on the table,” his mother shouted. When she came back later, she was amazed to find almost the same amount of food on his plate. “John, are you OK?” she asked. “Yes, Mom, I am fine!” said John, adding, “Our business is facing a challenge. I am trying to figure out the solution. That’s all.” She had known what was bothering John before he even told her. She looked at him with pity on her face, and without uttering a word she went outside.
Some time later, John visited his repairman friend, Assumani. At his house, John saw a computer fan. He picked it up and started to analyze it. It looked as if it might work instead of the cassette tape fan. He begged Assumani for permission to take the fan home for some experiments and promised him to start buying them if the experiment was successful. Assumani let him take it.
He couldn’t believe his eyes: there was charcoal dust blazing from the center of the charcoal burner to all four of its corners. The charcoal burner was operating as efficiently as a gas stove. Everyone at John’s house loved the used computer fan.
He immediately contacted the team. He told them he had found the solution to their customers’ complaints. They were all keen to see the prototype, which John immediately demonstrated. When they saw it working, Justin exclaimed, “Bring beer and let’s celebrate!” While they were drinking and having fun, several customers came in with the usual complaint. The team promised to fix all the Kigongas that had been previously bought and assured them that the problem wouldn’t occur again. John and the team started to make money after fixing almost all of the Kigongas.
Then some people from Lilongwe, the capital, came and offered them money. They wanted to take the Kigonga team to an exposition in Lilongwe. They impressed the team by promising not only to invest but also to assist with the production. They said they could help produce charcoal from waste material, but after it was explained that the Kigonga used charcoal dust and was made with a computer fan, they went away and were not seen again.
Not long after, John was surprised to find different types of Kigonga almost everywhere in Lilongwe, produced by the very people who had offered to invest. John and the team never profited from the sweat of their labor.
19 June, 2023