Over the last few months our team across Malawi and Australia have been reflecting on our work to date. We’ve been dissecting the key factors underpinning our many successes and perhaps more so, our failures and the rich learnings attached to them. Why? Apart from it being key to being reflexive development practitioners, we have been creating our roadmap for the next 5 years. As we’ve maintained from our humble beginnings in 2010, we are committed to focusing on depth of impact over breadth of reach. As such, we have been exploring how we can extend our impact across multiple regions in Malawi without comprising on our values and approach. Now that we have almost completed this process, I’m excited to share a quick summary of what we have committed to as a team.
Over the next five years, Empower Malawi will initiate partnerships with five rural regions to support their development aspirations towards self-reliance. Each region comprising 30-50 villages, each project 5 years in duration. We expect our project reach to impact approximately 100,000 Malawians by 2022.
Our Project Model
One of the critical conversations we have been having is in relation to our project model. As you may know, one of the most distinctive aspects of our approach to development is the fact that all our projects centre on a 5 year community vision. This has and continues to be a vital means through which we ensure that our projects are based on community aspirations and needs as opposed to our well-intentioned assumptions and prescriptions. The team verdict was unanimous, this approach worked wonders as it has helped ensure that we back projects that have strong local commitment. Even in instance of project failure, it has allowed us to collectively reflect and consider more appropriate alternatives together. Our main challenge however, has been with respect to scope. A 5 year vision is expansive and energising but what can we deliver on and where might we enlist the expertise of partner organisations or urge independent community action? As an organisation, we have worked on a range of integrated initiatives with a view towards enabling self-reliance. Take our work in Kapita as a case in point – we have supported projects ranging from a community bank to training in sustainable agriculture, providing access to renewable energy and building community centre. Many of which have been successful but have seen us stretched! It also prompts a question – where are we having the most impact and are we better off focusing on these areas? The answer to this question of scope has crystallised over the years and our core competencies are now clear to us.
Our refined project model concentrates our focus on two key focus areas 1) Promoting and developing cooperatives as a model to achieve development outcomes 2) using permaculture to improve sustainability in schools. Let me offer brief rationales for both.
Cooperatives – Over the last 5 years, we have come to develop a great appreciation of how impactful community cooperatives can be in achieving a range of development outcomes. In fact we outlined our appreciation of them in a blog post. These member owned and operated institutions are an example of grassroots democracy in action and can be used towards a wide range of development outcomes e.g. financial inclusion, energy access or food security. Through our experience in establishing 3 cooperatives in Malawi, we feel that we have developed in-house expertise in taking rural communities through the process of establishing and growing these institutions. To this end, we have also developed strong working partnerships with the Ministry of Trade and the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives. So the trifecta of cooperatives being versatile vehicles for collective impact, our growing experience and our strategic partnerships have lead us to conclude that this ought to be a key area of focus moving forward.
Sustainable Schools through Permaculture- Permaculture (permanent culture) is a design science for sustainability. It provides a perspective and set of principles that allow people to design sustainable systems, be it in the realm of agriculture, energy, water or even finance. In fact, it could be argued that cooperatives are an example of permaculture in action. Training and support in adopting permaculture practices has long been part of our focus in both Malawi and Sri Lanka. I recently provided a summary of what this looks like in a school setting, through the example of Kapita Primary School. Why schools you ask? Like in many parts of the world, rural schools in Malawi are chronically underfunded and understaffed. This is juxtaposed against the vital need for education for both children and adults to improve their quality of life. The impacts of an improved learning environment are intergenerational.
Why permaculture? We feel that permaculture practices are versatile in addressing a range of development outcomes, better still, these practices can be easily taught and practiced using locally available resources. Interestingly, many of these practices e.g. agricultural practices, draw upon local knowledge that may have been lost through colonisation and the industrialisation of agriculture. As evidenced through the example of Kapita Primary School, our focus will be on using our expertise and experience in permaculture to help local schools address self-identified priorities such as income generation, food security and nutrition or energy access (via our sister organisation Zuwa Energy). We will work along side staff, students and parents to action a range of initiatives that make a school more resilient and self-sufficient. In addition to inspiring students, it is our hope that these schools serve as demonstration centres for sustainable practices that inspire the wider community.
There you have it! Our 5 year community-driven model remains and our focus is now on building cooperatives and sustainable schools. In line with this, our team is set to grow across this period and our field staff will be required to specialise in one of these two focus areas. Suffice to say, we are excited about the road ahead. This plan has been developed through a lot of reflection and we feel that we are ready to expand our impact across several districts in Malawi. Scoping for our first of five projects will commence in July, we expect to initiate implementation within 2017.
As always, we’d like to thank all our supporters for making this journey possible. If you have any questions or comments about our approach, feel free to drop us a line below or send me an email – shanil-at-empowerprojects.org