Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with 50.7 % of its 17.5 million population living below the poverty line. Its economy is based around agriculture with 80% of its population depending on agriculture for survival. However, the focus on agriculture is having detrimental effects on livelihoods – diminishing incomes and purchasing power that has a knock-on effect of plunging people into food and nutrition insecurity in a state of perpetual poverty. This is exacerbated by several other issues like land tenure and ownership of land, policy implementation failure, lack of political will, a laissez-faire approach to land and forest management, poor governance at local level, and inadequate funding for land and forest initiatives.
Malawi has lost and continues to lose fertile soils and forest cover. Studies show that 40% of the country’s forest was lost between 1972 and 1990 and anecdotal evidence increases that figure today. Most of this erosion is due to slash and burn agriculture that results in soil erosion and increases carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Recent trends show people are moving into village forest areas and clearing them to reclaim land.
St. Patrick’s Missionary Society designed a Sustainable Management of Land and Forest Resources project based on the Catholic Development Commission’s (CADECOM’s) strategic objective that climate change and deforestation should be tackled at local level. The project mobilises communities into local institutions and building their capacity in natural resources management to reverse the adverse effects of climate change and restore their livelihoods.
Vera Ngola lives in Kagawa village on the outskirts of Mzuzu in Northern Malawi. She is a widow, and has 3 children: Christina (19), and two boys, William (16) and Owen (11).
Vera is a member of a stoves group and Village Savings and Loans (VSL) club which were organised as part of an environmental conservation project implemented by CADECOM (and funded by Misean Cara). Through these initiatives, she has learned to manufacture energy efficient stoves using locally available clay. The process takes around 4 weeks to complete and entails multiple steps from treating the clay to firing the stoves.
Using the stoves, Vera has reduced her consumption of firewood by almost 80%. She used to spend around MK3500 (€4.20 or about 3 times the average daily wage) each week on fuel wood, and now only needs to spend MK500 (€0.60). This frees up a significant proportion of time and income for use in other aspects of the household. Her stove manufacturing group initially distributed the stoves amongst themselves for internal use, but are planning to start selling the next batch to the wider community. Thus, they plan to both generate income for the group, and extending the benefits to other community members.
This positive income through savings on fuelwood is supplemented by her tomato selling business which she funds through capital from her VSL cub. She periodically takes a loan from her club to buy tomatoes locally and travel to town to sell them in Mzuzu market where she often turns a neat profit. She generates enough through this combination of initiatives to sustain herself and her family. Prior to her involvement in the project, her eldest daughter Christina had to drop out of school as they couldn’t afford the fees. Since starting these activities, her daughter has been able to enrol in night school which will now give her a chance to finish her secondary education. Additionally, Vera is confident of having food in the household all year round, even during what are known as the ‘hunger months’ (December – February, pre-harvest). Prior to her involvement in these activities, she used to be supported by her extended family in South Africa, but now she feels she can stand on her own feet.
Vera understands the need to conserve the forest around her; “the forest brings us nice air and peace, and it will help us as a resource in the future.” She is happy that she now has the means to promote the conservation of the forest and enhance her own livelihood at the same time.
Vera has ambitions to buy a small plot of land to farm for herself, and expand her business activities into the more capital intensive and lucrative second-hand clothes market. She feels strongly that the project support has been invaluable and wishes for it to continue “my life has really changed, I hope it does not finish here, because I need to send my other children to school too!”