Returning to Malawi (2023)
Our Co-Founder and Executive Director Dr Shanil Samarakoon shares some highlights from his recent visit to Malawi.
It’s been over 3 years since I’ve been to Malawi! The pandemic disrupted my annual visits, quality time on the ground during which I’d connect with our team, partner communities, and partner organisations. As has been the case for many of us, much of this work has been since relegated to emails, calls and WhatsApp chats. While I’m grateful for this technology as it has enabled us to continue our work with schools and communities on the ground …there’s no substitute for being there in person.
It was why it was such a pleasure to connect with our Project Manager Bright Msuku after this long pause!
It’s customary for us to spend a lot of time in the field together and once I touched down in Lilongwe, we forged plans to visit all our projects in the Districts of Mchinji and Lilongwe. More specifically, this involved visiting 3 partner schools and 5 partner cooperatives in the rural depths of these districts. While the distances aren’t great, heavy rains in the months of January and February make travelling a real challenge -a 4×4 was essential.
It was a very fruitful trip and we did a A LOT…so I’ll confine this post to my Top 3 highlights.
1. Visiting Mphanga Primary School in Mchinji
It was really thrilling to visit this school as I’ve never been here before and their progress has been remarkable. Our collaboration with this school resulted in the launch of a school meal program that provides 1,400+ pupils with breakfast at least 3 days a week. This is especially important between Jan-Apr as these are known to be the periods during which hunger is particularly acute. The buzz around the meal program was very clear to see with several students voicing their appreciation – many mentioned being able to concentrate in class as they didn’t feel hungry. This occurs in a context where farmers contend with a 400% increase in fertilizer prices over the last 12 months.
This meal program is a massive operation that is entirely managed by the local community. Our coordinator Joel Smitten has supported this school over the last 2 years by training community members in permaculture methods – from designing gardens to composting and intercropping. The results are phenomenal, over 12 acres of communal land are now dedicated to growing food to drive the school’s meal program. There are plans to expand it even further!
I also got to see the school’s solar system in action (courtesy of Zuwa Energy). This means that both teachers and students get access to good lighting at night. The key impact here is that it enables the school to host night classes in a safe space that allows senior students to get the help they need for high school entrance exams.
2.Cooking Oil and Honey Co-ops in Mchinji
While in Mchinji, we visited two enterprising cooperatives that are making some great progress with our support. Mthirasembe (115 members) produces cooking oil from sunflowers and peanuts, while Mtenjemanga (56 households) produces honey. Incidentally, most of the members of these cooperatives have children that attend Mphanga Primary School! We met with members of each of these cooperatives and got detailed updates on how they are progressing with the interest-free loans that they were given in May 2022.
It was great to note how upbeat each of these cooperatives were about their business and their capacity to boost their levels of production despite challenging economic conditions in Malawi. Mthirasembe have invested in a new location for their factory that frees them from rent and a lack of access to electricity. Meanwhile, Mtenjemanga has diversified its operations to grow soy. They intend to use these proceeds to replace old bee hives and increase honey production – a commodity that is in high demand in their local community! Both cooperatives will receive extensive business, governance, and agricultural training from our team this year, news that was met with great appreciation as these organisations have had a surge of new members come in over the last 12 months.
Mtenjemanga’s honey processing machine
Members of Mtenjemanga insisted on a picture together 🙂
Mthirasembe’s cooking oil processing machine
Labels for the bottles of cooking oil that Mthirasembe produce
3. Demera Cooperative in Lilongwe
My final highlight was in Lilongwe, were we met with Demera Cooperative, an agricultural cooperative with 215 active members. This cooperative has benefitted from both interest-free finance and training from Empower Projects since 2019. They’ve gone from strength to strength, with their members citing major improvements in income and their capacity to send their children to high school as a result of being members of the cooperative.
The next chapter of our support for this large cooperative centres on a great collaboration with SoPowerful, a solar-focused NGO. Through their generous technical contribution and a loan we provided to acquire additional land, Demera Cooperative now has their own solar irrigated 1.5 acre farm! They also have access to a new communal tap that households in the area can use. The cooperative is already starting to grow a range of cash crops that will boost revenue all year round as they are no longer tethered to seasonal rains. We will be providing this cooperative with additional training and permaculture design support to ensure that this space is used with both short-term and long-term crops in mind. Overall, our collective goal is to ensure that the cooperative’s output goes towards addressing food security in the region.
A meeting with members of Demera Cooperative
A view from the top. The solar system is complemented by a 5,000L storage tank.
Well…that’s just a few of the major highlights from an extremely rewarding trip to Malawi. It was so good to be back and I hope this marks a return to regular visits. We’ve made a lot of ambitious plans for 2023 that we hope to deliver on with your support 🙂
Director (Finance) Runil Patel and Project Manager Bright Msuku dropping me at the airport