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Thwarting charcoal business – Fund gives communities an alternative

By Memory Kutengule Chatonda

 The latest World Bank Poverty Assessment Report released in November 2022 finds that just over half of Malawian population (50.7%) is poor, almost no different from a decade ago.

The intensity, the report says, is highest in the central and southern regions, both at 54.2 percent, and the lowest in the Northern region, at 51.0 percent.

This is due to, among other things, high population growth and reliance on rain-fed agriculture that eventually leads to low agricultural production.

The situation pictures a scenario of the Traditional Authority (T/A) Kunthembwe in Blantyre which, according to the 2018 population census, has a population of 45,972.

The area experiences erratic rainfall and the land is degraded such that crop production   every harvest season is usually low leading to food insecurity among households.

As a result, many communities, according to T/A Kunthembwe, find solace in charcoal production for business to earn a living, ignoring negative effects that come as a result of the continued environmental malpractice.

Fourty-five-year-old Thomas Mpemba from Chatembenuka Village in the area of T/A Kunthembwe in Blantyre attests to the fact.

The father of six says for almost six years, he has been practicing the charcoal business for survival. Mpemba says he was introduced to the business by a colleague after learning about the plight he was passing through.

“I lived in a small and dilapidated house and struggled to support my family with basic needs, including food and shelter.

“My half-acre plot of farmland which I inherited from my elder brother for maize production could not produce enough due to erratic rainfall coupled with land degradation. The charcoal business was therefore a reliable source of income for my family,” he justifies.

Despite his survival being on the illicit business, Mpemba complains of the hassles he experienced in the production of charcoal and the distances he maneuvered with the commodity every day in the harsh terrain of Kunthembwe to Blantyre City just to get his charcoal sold.

“I thought of quitting the business but what was failing me was the fact that I could not find an alternative source of generating income to support my family needs,” explains Mpemba.

The story of Mpemba is not new in the area. Thanks to the World Bank-funded Malawi Watershed Services Improvement Project (MWASIP) that was introduced in the Kapichira catchment which covers T/A Kunthembwe and part of T/A Chigaru.

Through the project, participating communities in the Village Natural Resources Management Committee (VNRC), a committee formed at the village level to implement MWASIP activities of sustainable land management and agricultural practices, benefit from the Community Environmental Conservation Fund (CECF).

CECF is a performance-based grant given to project participants to enable them engage in income-generating activities other than charcoal business.

Realising the need to conserve the environment but at the same time fulfill his wish, Mpemba joined the committee in 2022, which already had 35 community members working in Chiphanda VNRC, under Namitondo in the Kapichira catchment.

Converted to become environmental conscious, Mpemba participates in environmental conservation activities and improved agricultural practices alongside fellow VNRC members.

“We engaged in activities like tree planting, natural tree regeneration, construction of fire breaks, and contour ridging, among others. Besides, we also participated in improved agricultural practices such as manure making, construction of swales, contour and box ridges among others,” he says.

Just after six months into the committee, Mpemba, together with his friends, got privileged to be among 200 people from six villages to receive the grant after successfully implementing MWASIP activities.

“I was happy and immediately after receiving the money amounting to K190,000, I invested it in a grocery shop which has now started giving me profits,” he says.

Additionally, Mpemba says: “I am also able to harvest 35 bags of 50 kg maize from the same half-acre plot which I used to harvest less than a bag because of the use of improved farming technologies which I learned from MWASIP.”

Similarly, Agness Makoka from Namputo Village under Kapichira catchment at Kunthembwe explains that through CECF her family’s livelihood has improved for the better.

She says the money amounting to K200,000 she got from the fund, she invested in a business of selling maize which is currently generating her huge returns.

“In the past, we used to cut down trees for a living but since MWASIP came, trees are now protected, and people have found other sources of income through agriculture and small-scale businesses. In my case, I managed to get some money from CECF which necessitated me to start the maize and beekeeping business which has improved the livelihood of my family.

“I now manage to buy maize worth K600,000 and when I sell, I make around K1 million and I use half of the profit to support my family and educate my five school children; I choose the maize business because this area experiences erratic rainfall which makes it difficult for many farmers to harvest more hence a business opportunity,” she says.

Dola Mapemba, chair lady of Namitondo, says a micro catchment area that covers six villages, namely Baluwa, Chiphanda, Chikuja, Namputo, Kapita, and Mwazilinga, got a total of K15 million.

She describes the grant as a motivation for communities to continue participating in landscape restoration in Namitondo which is currently covering close to 1,500 hectares of forests.

“This money serves as a boost to our business capital, such as grocery shops and others,” she says, adding: “To ensure that the money continues to benefit the communities, each committee uses this grant as a revolving fund such that whosoever having access to it is expected to pay back the money with an interest of 20% after three months.”

Olive Vokhiwa is the MWASIP project coordinator for Blantyre and says Department of Forestry under Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment facilitates MWASIP and the performance based grant CECF.

She says currently the project is being implemented in seven districts of Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka, Zomba, Ntcheu, Blantyre, and Neno to increase the adoption of sustainable landscape management practices and improve watersheds in targeted catchment areas.

In Blantyre, Vokhiwa says the project works with 12,500 households, including Mpemba and Makoka to implement sustainable land management and agriculture practices to conserve the 8,000-hectare Kapichira catchment situated along the Shire River using different environmental friendly interventions.

“Such communities receive a grant under CECF to be used to provide micro-credit to members involved in implementing Village Land Action Plan activities under MWASIP.

“And the money is accessible to all communities within the catchment that are involved in the landscape restoration programmes based upon performance and successful fulfillment of implementation of environmental conservation,” she says.

Reaching this far, Vokhiwa says through CECF, beneficiary households have managed to access funds amounting to K139 million, which was earmarked for the initiative.

She adds that it is pleasing to learn that the majority of them have invested the money they got into different businesses, other than charcoal business, to improve their living standards.

“Generally, the fund has so far made a huge difference in the lives of many communities, including Mpemba because some used the money to boost their grocery shops while some ventured into vegetables selling and other farm produce and others bought livestock like goats and pigs. These are huge investments,” says Vokhiwa.

Blantyre District Commissioner Alex Mdooko, therefore, encourages people to change their mindset and participate in MWASIP activities implementation in large numbers to change the outlook of Kunthembwe and part of the Kuntaja area while at the same time benefit from CECF, which he said is key towards alleviating poverty at household level.

He says with the progress made so far in scaling up land restoration, the council is instilling in the communities a sense of ownership and hard work to sustain the project activities after 2026.

With collective effort towards environmental conservation, the battle against effects of climate change, land degradation, and low crop production can be won, thereby breaking the chains of poverty.

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