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Striving to protect the environment

PROGRESSING—Mbira Women Group


By Joseph Mawera:

Amid a cocktail of adverse climate change, rapid deforestation, perennial hunger, poverty and attendant woes and perils, a good part of Kasungu is beginning to cope and protecting its food systems and environment while empowering local communities for long-term resilience.

The approach that is paying dividends is multi-pronged. Household after household, school after school, village after village, communities and families, working together with extension workers, traditional leaders, students, school teachers, chiefs, village bank groups, cooperatives, civil society groups and the development arm of the Catholic Church are working towards implementing an agenda that, visibly, has received a lot of buy in.

It is an agenda that hopes to secure the future of a district for long considered as the country’s breadbasket and heartland of the major cash and export crop, tobacco, and hopes can be replicated elsewhere in Malawi, where the majority of its 18 million-plus population remains trapped in poverty and its agri-based economy continues to battle the ever-growing effects of climate change.

Kasungu’s yellow-coloured soils are among the best agricultural soils in the country and average of annual rainfall of 800 millimetres has made the district an agriculture stronghold.

But both small-holder and large-scale farmers, who largely depend on rain-fed agriculture for their wellbeing, are increasingly at the mercy of climate change.

Such a setup exposes farmers’ livelihoods to weather-related shocks and declining natural resource base. Tasintha project intends to address the present and future impacts of climate change.

The main centre of activity is Traditional Authority Kaomba, where the Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development (JCED), a social and community development arm of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Fathers) of the Zambia-Malawi Province, is implementing a three-year project called Tasintha seeking to transform livelihoods, protect the environment and food systems with components such as energy.

Most of the interventions hinge on ensuring that agriculture—the main source of income for most community members— is boosted while the environment is protected.

At the same time, community members are encouraged to diversify their sources of income and move away from traditional and harmful practices that threaten the environment, according to Mathews Phwandaphwanda who leads JCED’s climate smart agriculture interventions.

That means helping farmers adopt and use green and climate resilient farming practices that enhance crop productivity for food security and improved nutrition.

“We, extension workers and farmers, work together to ensure soil and water conservation, protect greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs and limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

“We also help farmers in value addition of produce such as processing of groundnuts into groundnut oil and participation of farmers in Village Savings and Loan schemes from which they will be able to acquire loans to start small and medium-scale businesses,” Phwandaphwanda says.

Beatrice Phiri, chairperson of the all-female Chimwemwe Village Bank that JCED has been supporting since 2019, concurs.

“We have been learning about financial literacy and receiving support of cash crops such as soya so that we can diversify our sources of income,” Phiri explains.

She says the men in the village have been both envious and supportive while success of the clubs saw membership rise such that three new sister club had to be formed on top of the original club.

Another problem that the Tasintha Project has been addressing is that of deforestation, with majority of the communities heavily reliant on firewood as a source of energy, leading to uncontrollable cutting down of trees.

To intervene against the trend, JCED started working with communities to use fuel-efficient ceramic cook stoves, locally known as Chitetezo mbaula, as an alternatives and formed cooperatives which produce the stoves.

JCED resells the stoves to the communities at a low price of K500 after buying the same stoves at K1,500 to promote cooperatives and is now helping them to construct shelters for their production.

One such cooperative is Mbira Women Group, which since its formation five years ago, has produced 1,003 stoves.

Queen Mwale, a member of the group, says the benefits of participating in the stove production cooperative have been tangible.

“Since I started using Chitetezo mbaula for cooking and heating, my family no longer suffers from respiratory diseases due to inhalation of excess fumes from a three-stone fire place. The same quantity of firewood I could use for two days, is used for a week. I have more time to care for my family and participate in economic activities and my children have more time to do their school work,” she says.

Martha Phiri, JCED field officer for energy, says such efforts are contributing to the decrease in deforestation as well as reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

“The cook stoves are both beneficial to the people in the area and the environment. The impact they have on the environment is minimal as one will use lesser firewood as compared to charcoal or the traditional firewood that consume a lot and leave a trail of destruction,” says Phiri.

In addition to the interventions on reforestation and energy, JCED is also working with other communities and schools to introduce orchards and woodlots to protect the environment and produce fruits.

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