Adult literacy as a tool for development


By John Ambali:

The fight against illiteracy among adults in Malawi can be traced to the colonial era. The British government, in cooperation with Unesco, launched a mass education pilot project in the late 1940s in Dowa District. The project did not last long due to some administrative and technical challenges.

When Kamuzu Banda came to power, he recognised the need to have a literate population and considered illiteracy as an obstacle to development. He, therefore, pursued efforts to increase literacy rates among adults.


In 1986, his government launched the National Adult Literacy Programme to manage literacy interventions in the country and the National Centre for Literacy and Adult Education (Naclae) was established to be the focal point of this programme.

Naclae performs several responsibilities to make adult literacy an integral part of national development. Among them is curriculum development. The curriculum is designed in a way that adult learners are flexible in the andragogy process.

Not only do they learn reading, writing and calculating, but the curriculum also provides an opportunity to adult learners to engage in activities that would improve their livelihoods.


Information on agriculture, health, nutrition and small-scale businesses is disseminated to the rural masses through this programme.

Naclae also produces teaching and learning materials for adult learning to facilitate teaching and learning processes. The primer ‘Chuma ndi Moyo’ and other supplementary readers have been produced and distributed to literacy centres across the country.

Chalk, duster, blackboard and other materials have equally been provided. However, due to limited resources, not all literacy centres have had the luck to receive these teaching and learning aids.

In some instances, communities have been trained to make teaching and learning materials using locally available resources.

Instructors and supervisors of literacy centres are trained in handling adult learners as well as in how to manage various teaching methodologies.

Malawi has experienced a slight drop in illiteracy levels among adults over the years. In 2016, for example, Unesco reported that close to 35 in every 100 Malawians aged 15 and above could not read and write.

Currently National Statistical Office (NSO, 2018) estimates that illiteracy levels are pegged at 17 percent for men and 31 percent for women.

Efforts are underway to reduce illiteracy levels further. Naclae still organises, establishes and maintains successful functional literacy classes across the country through community development offices in all the districts.

At the moment, there are over 10,000 literacy classes across the country catering for over 150,000 learners. However, this number is substantially low as the target is to reach to about 300,000 learners annually.

The clientele for this programme are the illiterate adults who are 15 years and above. Men, women, youths and people with disabilities are the targets. However, most centres are largely patronised by women.

People who are literate can participate fully in development activities happening in their communities. They know the importance of increased involvement in public life.

In addition, improved literacy leads to improved health decisions which in turn lead to reduced healthcare costs for the nation. Communicable diseases are easily avoided if people are able to read and understand preventive messages of such diseases.

In political life, a literate citizen is more likely to vote and express tolerant views than an illiterate one.

The coming of the Covid pandemic has not helped matters as it disrupted literacy activities across the country. Literacy classes were closed for months due to restrictive preventive measures.

During this time, there were many misconceptions about this new disease. As the classes were not functional, it presented quite a challenge to iron out these misleading pieces of information.

Most of the illiterate people are so poor that they cannot afford digital technology to access information on Covid. Additionally, quite a lot of them are unable to use such digital technology.

There is need to incorporate digital education in the curriculum of adult literacy and education to fill the digital literacy gap.

In this age, it is imperative to provide youths and adults with information and communication technology skills. There is need to explore the inclusion of digital education in the provision of non-formal education to basic literacy graduates like those who enrol in English classes and upper primary lessons.

Despite the Covid challenge, literacy activities have continued to help rural masses recover from the shocks of both poverty and the pandemic.

Learners and graduates of literacy lessons have been encouraged to establish income generating activities to get extra income to improve their lives.

Some literacy classes have organised themselves to form business groups. Poultry farming, growing vegetables and bee keeping are some of the group businesses being undertaken.

In addition, some literacy classes have been encouraged to form Village Savings and Loans groups. Through literacy skills imparted in them, they are able to know the saving and sharing process.

Financial literacy, which is part of the content in the curriculum, equips people with knowledge and skills to manage their finances more efficiently and make sound financial decisions.

Budgeting skills, understanding interest rates and practising savings are some of the concepts people need during the pandemic period.

With low financial literacy skills, people resort to making unreasonable financial decisions. Lessons learnt in literacy classes help people handle financial affairs in the face of the pandemic.

Establishing investments, having multiple sources of income and saving have rescued people from the shocks of the pandemic and poverty.

However, Adult literacy and education continues to face numerous challenges. Among them is poor patronage for adult literacy classes across the country. In most cases, the classes are flooded by female participants.

Poor infrastructure, lack of teaching and learning materials and shortage of adult literacy instructors are some of the problems the sector is experiencing. Central to these challenges is limited funding for adult literacy and education programmes.

There is need for concerted efforts to deal with illiteracy among adults in Malawi. Much energy must be placed in the implementation of adult literacy activities by different stakeholders.

The government, development partners, civil society organisations (CSOs) and religious institutions must work hand in hand to help uplift the sector.

Stakeholders should not work in isolation to avoid duplication of their work. Thanks to the government for developing the Adult Literacy and Education Policy which will provide direction for different stakeholders to work in partnership.

Most CSOs have concentrated their energy in basic education. Very few have had an input in adult literacy and education. It is a lone sector; very few are interested in. It is high time they started supporting the sector.

Government and non-state actors can collaborate in infrastructural development that can provide a conducive learning environment for adult learners.

These stakeholders can team up to establish community learning centres which can accommodate various forms of non-formal learning at one place like adult literacy in mother tongue languages, teaching of English as a second language and non-formal skills training for the youth.

Currently, adult learners across the country use borrowed structures for their classes such as churches or primary schools, which are usually in high demand by the owners.

Stakeholders in adult literacy and education can also support the sector with teaching and learning resources to help adults improve their reading, writing and numeracy skills.

*The author is a lecturer in Adult Education at Magomero Community Development College

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