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How women in Malawi are turning waste into wealth

by Charles Mkula

LILONGWE, Malawi — As the sun rises, Norah Baziwell leaves her family home here in the crowded squatter settlement of Mtandire Township. Pushing a wheelbarrow containing a shovel, rake, pick, hoe, watering can, pail, gumboots and gloves, she heads about a hundred yards down a dirt road to check on her treasure stashed under plastic wraps.

Editors note: This article first appeared in Citiscope.org and is reprinted with permission.

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That treasure is a mound of compost, or manure as it’s called here. Baziwell made the nutrient-rich soil from trash she collected in Mtandire, about 80 percent of which consists of biodegradable organic material. She sells the finished product to a local nursery, earning about $50 U. S. in a typical month — income that helped Baziwell and her husband expand their old house, build a modern new home and send one of their seven children to university.

Baziwell is one of the pioneers of a movement started several years ago to improve the urban environment in this unplanned settlement on the edge of Malawi’s capital. Lilongwe city authorities have long neglected waste collection in poor areas like this. Garbage piled up on street corners, in open spaces and along roads, creating a terrible stench and spreading diseases such as cholera.

Today, the dumps are gone thanks to Baziwell and 30 other compost entrepreneurs, all but one of them women. Now Baziwell, who is 48, hopes she can expand her business by purchasing her own vehicle to collect garbage from other nearby settlements. “Having managed to clean our area,” she says, “we now go out to other townships seeking waste to turn into manure.”

Waste for wealth

Mtandire’s approach to waste could hold lessons for other cities as Africa continues an epic wave of urbanization. According to the African Development Bank, the urban share of Africa’s population has grown from 19 percent to 39 percent over the past 50 years, and it’s headed to 58 percent by 2030. Landlocked Malawi is urbanizing at twice the rate of the rest of the continent.

Waste entrepreneurs in Mtandire go door-to-door collecting trash. Organic waste is sorted, piled into heaps, enriched, covered and churned for six weeks to turn it into compost. (Charles Mkula)

Waste entrepreneurs in Mtandire go door-to-door collecting trash. Organic waste is sorted, piled into heaps, enriched, covered and churned for six weeks to turn it into compost. (Charles Mkula)

Lilongwe, a city of 700,000 people, generates more than 350 tons of solid waste a day — about half a kilogram (or one pound) per person. The Lilongwe City Council is responsible for waste collection, but has been unable to keep up with the rapid growth in squatter settlements. According to Mtafu Zeleza Manda, a planning expert and consultant here, waste management in Malawi is a relatively new phenomenon.

Manda says: “The local governments, faced with inexperienced staff in waste disposal technicalities, inadequate funds and equipment, and lack of properly planned and designed disposal sites, are left with uncontrolled and indiscriminate waste disposal by households, commercial and industrial enterprises and even the local governments themselves.”

In 2008, the Lilongwe City Council teamed up with local NGOs and university researchers to figure out a different way to handle solid waste in fast-growing impoverished areas. They set up a pilot program in Mtandire and another community known as Area 25.

They called the program “Waste for Wealth.” Promoting empowerment of women was a big component. With a $290,000 grant from the UN Development Programme, dozens of women were trained in composting methods, as well as leadership skills, hygiene and sanitation, gender equality and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The women were supplied with tools as well as some land and a shed for sorting and composting waste. A key partner is the Four Seasons Nursery, an upmarket florist and landscaper in Lilongwe, which signed on to purchase the compost.

The women go door-to-door, collecting waste from homes and markets.They bring it to the shed and sort out inorganic wastes such as plastic bottles and bags for burning. The organic waste is then piled into heaps. To enrich the mineral content, Baziwell explains, the waste is mixed with soil, dung or chicken droppings and tree leaves, maize or rice husks. A little water is sprinkled in to hasten the putrefaction process.

“We then cover the heap of waste under a plastic paper which serves to heat and dry the waste for two weeks,” Baziwell says. After that, the cover is removed and the waste is plowed over regularly for the next four weeks to ensure that all particles are equally exposed to heat and that the nutrients are evenly distributed in the heap.

“When the process is done with and the product is ready we sift the finer particles and prepare them for sale,” Baziwell says. A final compost product is rich fine black soil, soft in texture with an inoffensive scent. Four Seasons uses its own vehicles to come pick up the finished compost.

‘Able to fend’

Not everything has gone smoothly. According to an evaluation by UNDP and UN-Habitat, land disputes in Area 25 made it difficult to find a place to make the compost, causing some women to drop out of the program. And many of the women complained that having only one buyer of the compost meant they had to accept low prices. In a survey, most of the women from Area 25 involved in the project said it had not achieved the objective of creating livelihoods from manure production.

The final compost product is a fine black soil, soft in texture with an inoffensive scent. Most of the compost is bought by a local nursery but urban farmers are new and growing market. (Charles Mkula)

The final compost product is a fine black soil, soft in texture with an inoffensive scent. Most of the compost is bought by a local nursery but urban farmers are new and growing market. (Charles Mkula)

Women from Mtandire had a much more favorable view. Two-thirds of those surveyed said the program had succeeded in creating a livelihood for them. What’s more, many said they had used their composting income to acquire land, improve their homes or send their children to school.

Chrissy Maseko is one of them. Before she turned to composting, Maseko was a housewife who depended on her husband, a casual worker at an industrial site, for all her needs. He died in 2011, leaving her with six children to support. “Since the time my husband died, I have been able to fend for my children,” says Maseko, 49. “I am planning to remove the grass thatch from my house and put on iron sheets.”

Lucia Tengani, 45, says she too is better off. Married with six children, Tengani is able to supplement her husband’s income. She’s also been able to buy a plot of land where she built a semi-detached house to rent out.

The women in Mtandire have continued collecting and composting trash even though startup funding dried up last December. Lilongwe City Mayor Kwame Bandawe, who won his position in May campaigning on improving waste management in his middle-income ward, says the project has created self-employment, financial stability, and community cleanliness. “They now have invaded other townships across the city to look for and collect garbage,” he says, approvingly.

Looking for markets

A key to sustaining and scaling up this waste-management model will be finding more markets for the compost. The Four Seasons nursery has been a reliable buyer but it’s not big enough to consume all the compost Lilongwe is capable of producing. “These people indeed need more outlets and a larger market to improve on their bargaining power when they sell the manure,” says Mayor Bandawe. The compost entrepreneurs are trying to make inroads with other landscapers, recreational gardeners and florists.

Urban agriculture represents a growing opportunity. David Mkwambisi, a lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says there’s enough agricultural land in Malawi’s urban areas to absorb all the organic waste those cities create. “As more land is being converted into agricultural land both in and around cities,” Mkwambisi says, “the potential of urban agriculture to reduce waste management problems is justified.”

Norah Baziwell sees the opportunity, and says urban farmers have begun buying her compost. But she says entrepreneurs like her will need vehicles rather than wheelbarrows to make the most of this market. “We encounter disarming heaps of indiscriminately disposed waste in neighboring townships,” Baziwell says, “but cannot do anything because of our limited capacity to transport the materials to our workplace.”

“The truth is,” she says, “there is big business out there.

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